Royce Da 5'9''s unflinching approach in music has allowed him to tattoo his name on rap culture. Whether he's delivering bruising blows on solo efforts like his highly-touted Bar Exam series, wrestling with his longtime Bad Meets Evil comrade Eminem for lyrical supremacy, or tag-teaming with DJ Premier for punchy projects, Royce is always locked inside the studio.
After releasing PRhyme 2 with DJ Premier in March, Royce Da 5'9'' quickly shifted the attention to his seventh studio album, Book of Ryan. Known for his lyrical gymnastics, Royce vowed to dig deeper for his latest release and unveil his closet of skeletons for avid supporters and first-time listeners. Without any hesitance, he spoke on his family woes, stemming from his father's struggle with alcoholism, to even his own missteps as a man. With nearly six years of sobriety under his belt, the astute lyricist has a sharper mind and perspective on life.
"A common misconception with drinking is that it’s like a temptation thing. It’s almost like people look at it like as if you’re hungry and someone is dangling a steak in front of you," says Royce after downing his Chick-Fil-A lemonade. "It's not like that."
While his candor proves to be the winning formula on Book of Ryan, most notably on tracks such as "Power and "Strong Friend," Royce's ability to knife his way through boom-bap beats remains an integral attribute in his DNA as an MC. For over three minutes, Royce sautes his opposition with his blistering delivery on "Godspeed." "Lo and behold, your honorable/ N----s is sheep, n----as is sleep, 'bout as woke as a dinosaur/ My connect'll give you a whole kilo of coke so he can go Geronimo/ He should receive a trophy for bein' the holy Jesus of flows, he the G.O.A.T/ Baaah, that should be my, taaaag," he spews.
"You know how many artists said behind the scenes that I’m the best rapper alive right now, but won’t say it publicly? They’re waiting for somebody else to say it," says Royce. "At the end of the day, you’re a sucker. The need to fit in is just bigger than anything else in the world right now."
Billboard spoke to Royce about his new album Book of Ryan, embracing sobreity, why he's praying for Kanye West, if bars still matter in 2018 and mental health in the African American community.
Let's start off with the "Dumb" track. It’s safe to say the you weren’t a happy man watching the Grammys this year?
I wasn’t unhappy. It’s nothing to get upset about. But I was just like, “I fuckin’ knew it.” The only person I felt bad for was JAY-Z, because they wasted so much of his time. I had “Dumb” written way before that. So when that happened it just proved my point.
What was more of a mind-fuck for you: Hov going 0 - 8 or Bruno beating Kendrick for album of the year?
Probably Hov, because Bruno had a great album. I’m not sure how aware they are. I’m not sure if they know if it was supposed to go to Kendrick. Bruno’s music is so good, so at least they gave it to another person who impacted the culture with some cool, talented shit.
Of course, I felt like Kendrick’s album was better and it deserved the Grammy with] everything he’s been through. It’s time to give him that. Stop minimizing us and giving us rap album of the year every time. Give us album of the year. Give that to somebody in hip-hop. C’mon, man. We are the culture.
If you were able to be a part of the Grammy committee, what changes would you implement?
The people voting. Laughs.]
The J. Cole record "Boblo Boat" -- it’s based on an amusement park, right?
Boblo Island is located on the Detroit River between Detroit and Canada. The whole island is an amusement park. There’s a boat ride that goes from the Detroit River dock that goes to the island. So the boat ride in itself is an experience. That’s poppin’. Boblo Island is and amusement park for lower-income families. I don’t know if it was made specifically for lower income families, but that was the one we could afford. The one you would aspire to go to.
It was there until the 1990s and that was like a family vacation for us. All of my memories associated with it are: mommy and daddy getting along, no arguing, me and my two brothers getting numbers. Remember when girls had to write them down. Getting freaky with girls on the boat.
I remember in one line you even said you lost your virginity there. Which memory associated with the island molded you the most?
It wasn’t losing my virginity, because I did so much freaky shit, man. It was probably seeing my brother drink for the first time. I remember being a little bit judgmental. Then, we both wound up being alcoholics. It’s just a testament to it being] okay to listen to the generic advice. The blanket advice you get from the adults, especially my dad who has been through it before, and who is my hero. “Stay away from that shit. You’re not wired like that. Don’t do drugs.” That generic advice. It’s okay to listen to that shit, and it’s so embedded in our brains and their brains for a reason.
I got a song on my album where I tell my son how afraid I get. There’s skits throughout the album where he’s asking me questions. I told him to ask me, but I didn’t tell him what to ask me. He asked me, do I ever get afraid? I did this song where I talk about all of the things I was afraid of. One of them was, when I got sober, would people accept music from me from that perspective? And if not, was I willing to accept it? The answer is: Of course I am. Whatever comes with it. If I’m out, I’m out. Peace.
Another one is I’m afraid of him drinking. College student. I know that it’s not going to affect him the same way it would affect someone else. The same shit happened to me. I had my first drink with Dr. Dre. Is he an alcoholic? No. Am I? Yeah.
It’s been five years since you’ve been sober.
It’ll be six in September.
With each year that has passed with your sobriety, has it gotten easier or harder for you to resist temptation?
It’s much easier. I don’t even think about it. A common misconception with drinking is that it’s like a temptation thing. It’s almost like people look at it like as if you’re hungry and someone is dangling a steak in front of you. It’s not like that. There are triggers. My ritual, and I trained myself to do this, when I would leave the house, I would make the same right turn and go down Orchard Lake, and there’s a liquor store on the corner that I was accustomed to going to. I would go in and get the same thing everyday: a liter of 1800 Silver.
Once I stopped drinking, as soon as I got to Orchard Lake, it’s a trigger. I just got to fight through that. I gotta make that right turn and not go in the liquor store. When I get to the studio and go downstairs, the smell of the studio triggers it. I gotta fight through that. My first year of going through those same patterns, I had to fight through those urges. Once I got myself used to it, making that right turn on Orchard Lake, I don’t think about it anymore. The desire to actually drink is nonexistent.
You’re about to hit six years sober and Em just reached ten. You’ve said on records how he’s helped you as far as trying to maintain that sobriety. What tips or advice has he given you to stay balanced?
Every time I mention Marshall’s name, it comes with such a high praise. He’s such a private person, and he doesn’t really speak much publicly. I think people automatically assume our relationship is like the Sensei and student type of relationship. It’s not at all. All we do is crack jokes all day. He’s not the type of person to try and drop jewels every time we get on the phone.
We talk about music a lot. We talk about the mechanics of rapping a lot. We’re like music nerds. Somebody would use a wack-ass line or something, and he’ll call me like, “Did you hear what this motherfucker said?” Even if it’s some shit that everyone seems to like.
The only thing he said to me prior to me getting sober was], “If you ever feel like you got a problem, you know that you can call me, right?” I was like, “All right, thanks.” But I kind of wanted to be like, “Does that mean you think I got a problem?” It bothered me a little bit because I wanted to know where it came from. That was one of the things that stuck with me a prompted me to call him when I decided to get sober.
I probably wouldn’t have thought to call him. I called my dad and him. He was the one who put me in the hospital with a private doctor, and hooked me up with the therapist I use ‘till this day.
I’ve spoken to a Big K.R.I.T. and a couple artists this year about black men embracing mental health. Why do you feel black men are afraid of embracing their mental health and speaking up on it?
The benefits of it are hidden from us. Possibly purposely. Growing up in the black community, and I don’t mean to be that guy, but my vision of mental health was skewed. I thought it was some weak-people shit, some dorky shit.
My big brother still feels the same way. I’ve offered to link him up with my therapist, and he’s in jail right now because he got caught with a gun and he was drunk. This is the type of shit that follows you, because you do stupid shit when you’re drunk. I told him he’s too old for this shit. I know for a fact he won’t be able to stop without help. You don’t have to go to AA, just talk to somebody. If you don’t like it, don’t do it anymore. “Fuck that. You do that corny industry shit. I ain’t doing that shit.”
That’s the standard mind of someone who grew up poor and black. We don’t have the information. We fear what we don’t understand. I used to hang with some girls back in the day, and they used to always try and get me to try shit. I never liked trying new shit. I’ll go anywhere in the world and try to figure out how to get two chicken breasts. I don’t care what the restaurant is. Can you make me two chicken breasts? I know what I like. Now, I force myself out of my comfort zone, creatively. If a producer sends me a zip file of beats, I know in my mind the type of beats that I’m drawn to.
I’m probably going to approach that shit the traditional way. There’s no problem with traditional songs. You can bring a mic in here and I’ll do that for you right now. But I’ll listen to the other beats, and some of them may sound like they were not intended for me. I’ll try to see what that brings out of me. The worst thing that can happen is you come up with something that you’re not going to use.
Why do bars still matter in 2018?
They never stopped mattering, but the conversation has just shifted. The uprising of sheeple is in full effect. With Twitter and all of that, the sheeple have a huge voice. We’re listening to the opinions of people who aren’t expressing their own opinions. We may be listening to people who don’t even know what they like. Imagine how many people go online to check out what they’re supposed to like.
Think about how many people want to say how much they don’t like something without making sure at first that it’s cool to say that. You know how many artists said behind the scenes that I’m the best rapper alive right now but won’t say it publicly? They’re waiting for somebody else to say it. At the end of the day, you’re a sucker. The need to fit in is just bigger than anything else in the world right now.
I feel like that’s such a hip-hop thing.
We’re talking about a genre of music that started out small, that wasn’t supposed to last. It’s considered black music that grew into the culture. It’s no longer a genre. It’s the culture. It ain’t just graffiti and breakdancing, it’s everything. This shit is hip-hop. Billboard is hip-hop. Hip-hop didn’t even use to be associated with Billboard like that. Who cared about charting in the '80s as a rapper?
We are the culture. We generate the most money. Since we grew to a billion-dollar industry, I’ve seen legends walking around looking like they haven’t made a single dollar in hip-hop. Why is there not a pension in place, health insurance in place? Why are there no people in place to teach the younger artists financial literacy? Nobody fuckin’ cares. It doesn’t matter where the money came from. It’s there. The fact that the conversation ain’t being had right now is amazing to me.
I remember your son was doing music, and I’m assuming he’s still pursuing it. Where’s his headspace at, knowing his dad is a famed lyricist, versus what’s coming out today?
I don’t know where his exact headspace is, but he don’t wave the flag. He don’t be out there looking like Lil Wayne’s daughter Laughs.] He don’t wave the flag. He just does him. Our relationship is great.
Do you struggle with that as an artist? You got other people like Lil Pump who are doing minimal lyricism and it’s thriving, and it’s like, “Where do I go?”
Ain’t he the one who was supposed to have a scholarship to Harvard or something? My son just quit college. Anybody pushing that agenda, I hate you right now. I mean, you’re talking about a young man who’s becoming a man and thinks he’s ready for the world. We gon’ see. He got about two more weeks of me paying his phone bill. You can come back with open arms, but you better come back humble.
Is he still living in the crib?
I didn’t kick him out. He wanted to leave. He showed up to the studio and said he needed to talk. I thought he was going to tell me his girl is pregnan,t because he’s been with his girl since middle school. He said, “I ain’t been to school since January.” I said, “Oh yeah?” He told me how his day goes. He said, “I got class from this time to this time. I study from this time to this time. I got from this time to this time to focus on my beats. I feel like I’m pursuing school full-time, and I’m pursuing my dream part-time.”
I said, “It sounds like school is preparing you with the art of multitasking.What’s the plan? What’s the first move?” He said he has a meeting with a producer about me playing him some beats. I said, “Listen, man. You don’t have to quit school to do that. You can do both.” I hate meetings, because it’s just people talking about what they’re going to do. I’m pretty sure a lot of people before JAY-Z were talking about starting a streaming company. It’s fairy dust, just words in the air.
One of my favorite tracks from your 2015 album Layers was “Pray.” What changes have you been praying for, especially with things progressively getting worse in the world since you dropped that track?
I might say a prayer for Kanye tonight. He either going through something, battling something or extremely ahead of his time. You can’t keep it that funky. You can’t be talking like that about slavery.] Not your friends, not nobody. When it gets to that point, where somebody is that off with what they’re trying to do, all you can do is pray for him.
Do you think this can all be a ploy to gain attention or wake people up? Like a social experiment?
I just want him to be all right, honestly. I don’t hold him to any high regard as a person. I’m not like a fan of him as a person. I’m a fan of him as an artist, and I respect him as an artist. I’m also an artist myself, and I’ve been around so long that I’m kind of desensitized from hanging posters up on the wall. I’m incapable of viewing people like that. You’d literally have to be... Beyoncé or JAY-Z. I hold them to that high regard.
Kanye, he a dude who I have the utmost respect for creatively. His personal views don’t bother me at all. This is a society and climate that’s moving so fast that you don’t have to see what you don’t want to see. You don’t have to listen to nothing you don’t want to listen to. Everything is on-demand. You can live in your own world and be completely happy. That’s your right as a fan. Unfortunately, there are people who are stuck to this man. They follow his every move and cling to his every word. He’s got to be responsible. I feel bad for them and I feel bad for Chicago. But in terms of my feelings towards him, he’s entitled to talk like that.
Do you feel like artists now still have an obligation to be role models?
I think the word you used gets a little touchy. I don’t know about role model, but I do think we all have a responsibility to at least be mindful of what we’re saying from our platforms. Regardless of how we intend something to come across, the kids literally take that shit and they live by it.