The amount of buzz Royce Da 5'9" still has is pretty amazing when you consider that his last official release of any consequence was four years ago (unless you count the hangers-on happy "Independent's Day," which I don't). After enduring multiple label issues and some iffy artistic choices, Royce failed to fully realize his potential on his debut "Rock City (Version 2.0)." Shouldering the weight of expectations that hung over him due to his association with Eminem and feeling overlooked by his Detroit compatriot, Nickel Nine then unleashed the devastating "Death Is Certain." Where his debut was rich and bubbly with production from the Neptunes and Trackmasters, his sophomore opus was dark and brooding and anchored by Carlos "6 July" Broady's ominous soundscapes. Where he flossed with Pharrell on "Rock City," he invoked the spirits of Biggie and Pac on back to back tracks on "Death Is Certain." But it wasn't just the tone that changed; it was the conviction with which he delivered his always excellent lyrics as he appeared to regain his focus by retreating to the darkest corners of his psyche. It was a powerful performance to say the least, and one that vaulted him to the forefront of rappers with that special something.
Since then, we haven't seen anything like the focused effort shown on "Death Is Certain." In fact, all we've been treated to are a bunch of crew projects and mixtapes which, while mostly very good, were never intended to function as a proper album and consequently felt a bit haphazard in presentation. A half-assed Royce Da 5'9" effort is still something to behold, but he has yet to prove whether or not he can build on the promise he exhibited way back when and the wait is beginning to wear on even his biggest fans (read: me).
I wish I could say that this is the long-awaited official release we've been promised, but in reality it's just another mixtape redux, dressed up and re-packaged for sale through more traditional channels. It feels like a bit of an afterthought to "The Bar Exam 2," with a track list stripped of the mixtape's recycled beats and supplemented with other original productions that attentive listeners will already be familiar with. The "BE2" holdovers include "Heat to the Streets" featuring Kid Vishis, "We Deep" featuring Trick Trick, "Been Shot Down," "Bad Guy," and "Gun Music," all of which sound just as good in their new environment as they did in the old. Others like "Promise Land" and "Rewind" have been floating around the interwebs for a while now but still merit inclusion for their quality beats and rhymes. "Let's Talk" is simply "Losing Out" off Black Milk's "Tronic," and "On the Low" is a renamed version of "That Your Man" off the version of "The Revival" that leaked a number of months ago.
That leaves just three songs which the well acquainted listener may or may not consider truly new. The first and best is "Give Up Your Guns" featuring Talib Kweli and Raekwon, with the three MCs spitting solid if unrelated sixteens over some chipmunk soul from DJ Wich. Kweli steals the show with his last few lines, which have more meaning than the entire rest of the song:
"The blood is the sum of the equation when you add up the factors
The splatter's attractive – life don't matter to rappers
So we glorify and glamorize, talk about our plans to die
And learn to always stay inside the motherfuckin' camera's eye
Get my good side, murder is so sexy
But the hood cried every time one of us would die"
"We Everywhere" is a decent enough track of haunting "Exorcist" style bells over 808 drums, and even the constant boasting about all the places these illustrious rappers have seen might be tolerable if Royce got the song all to himself. Instead, he shares time with his number one protégé Kid Vishis, whose best attribute is his ability to sound exactly like his mentor, and it keeps the song from being anything special. Carlos Broady comes in with a save for the last of the new songs, "Angel," which is a contemplative piece with an introspective piano line and soul vocal sample over which Royce offers words of encouragement to his friends behind bars, promising that the song will "last longer than any letter or any phone call." Royce has a history of mixed success with straightforward emotional topics like this, and this one is good but not among his best work. He tends to do better with weightier material when attacking it less directly, and while the sentiment is a nice one, the song lacks the power such a topic should command.
And that, folks, is the sum total of new music available on "The Album." Hell, even those three might be retreads that I happen not to have heard. It seems likely given the surroundings. Don't let my cynicism fool you, though. There is plenty to like here if you haven't heard it all before. I'm just a jaded fan who's growing weary of the constant postponements of release dates and recycling of old material, so the release of this as an "official" album strikes me as a bit gratuitous. I can't hate too much, because he did release "The Bar Exam 2" for free and he deserves to eat off its earning power despite the fact that the mixtape format doesn't allow for that. As long as you go into it knowing what to expect (or, more importantly, what not to), you're not likely to be disappointed. Royce is still a razor sharp lyricist with crazy charisma who can make the most mundane subject matter compelling, and the beats here mostly support his lofty ambitions. I won't be fully satisfied until the next real album hits shelves on a date auspiciously set for March of this year. Don't worry – I'm not holding my breath.
Music Vibes: 7.5 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 8 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7.5 of 10
Originally posted: February 3, 2009