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With ‘The Allegory,’ longtime Detroit rapper Royce da 5'9'' sees the light 

click to enlarge Royce da 5'9". - JENNY RISHER
  • Jenny Risher
  • Royce da 5'9".

In The Allegory of the Cave, Plato posited that men, kept in a cave with only shadows to keep them company, would soon embrace the darkness as their true reality.

When one of them was shown the light — the sun — he was, at first, blinded. He then came to appreciate it. But when he went back to the cave to tell his comrades of the good news, they found him so changed that they vowed never to leave their comfort zone. In fact, they would kill anyone who threatened their way of life.

The allegory is the origin of our modern saying that "ignorance is bliss."

Royce da 5'9" has seen the light of the sun. One of the first Detroit rappers to land a major record deal, Royce, née Ryan Montgomery, has been internationally famous since the late '90s. He was first featured on Eminem's debut album, The Slim Shady LP, on the now-classic track "Bad Meets Evil" in 1999.

Twenty years later, Royce is hoping to not just lead others to the light, but to be the light.

The Allegory, Royce's eighth solo studio album, is set to drop this week. He's also released six collaborative projects, including the acclaimed PRhyme and PRhyme 2 with DJ Premier, Welcome to: Our House with Slaughterhouse, and his last record, 2018's Book of Ryan, as well as countless mixtapes. In all, Royce has released well over two dozen projects over his 20-year career.

"This is the first album that has ever happened to me," Royce says of The Allegory, "After Book of Ryan, I didn't have anything that I really just needed to say. I would come in here and watch TV, play around, it happened really organically."

The album is dark, and by that I mean that it is Black AF. The Allegory opens with a conversation between controversial motivational speaker and author Derrick Grace speaking to his daughter about financial responsibility. From there, every track and skit is focused on freedom — both collective among African Americans, as well as personal freedom, his and the listener's.

"I hope that it starts a narrative and a conversation that it's OK to be smart, it's OK to be hip-hop," he says, "It's OK to have balance."

Balance is something that has been a growth process for Royce.

On Book of Ryan, he bared his soul. The critically acclaimed album was the result of seven years of sobriety and therapy. On it, Royce talked about growing up with a father who dealt with addiction issues, as well as his own struggles with alcohol. The album was raw, and for its honesty it was rewarded with a place on several top album of 2018 lists.

"I said so much on my last album that I felt like I didn't really have much more to say," Royce explains, "I told my story. I can always sit down and write 16 bars, but I wasn't really getting fulfillment out of it."

To fill his time, Royce started playing around with producing tracks for the very first time in his career. "If I start something, I'll just go down a rabbit hole," Royce explains. "I'll obsess over it. So I just started practicing and after a few months, I had an actual body of work that I felt good about shaping. There wasn't any pressure with this album. It was just me, in here, by myself ... talking to myself."

Thus, The Allegory was born from Royce rapping along to his own beats, and he produced every song on the album.

He also produced two tracks on the new Eminem album, Music to Be Murdered By, which dropped by surprise last month. Royce produced the first single, "Darkness," and the track that he's featured on, "You Gon' Learn."

For him, this is the very definition of success. Consistency and the freedom to do whatever the fuck you want.

"I think as much as being consistent is important for Royce, being persistent is a huge part of his long-term success, as well," says Paul Rosenberg, Eminem's manager and CEO of Island/Def Jam. "From what I've witnessed, Royce is never satisfied to rest on his laurels, nor is he one to be content after he reaches certain goals. There's something inside driving that man, which is one of the qualities that has made him stand the test of time."

I've known Royce Da 5'9" for 20 years. It is a friendship rooted in time and mutual admiration. He is one of the last rappers in the city who still calls me by my given name. It is a friendship of shared memories, shared losses, and unspoken understanding. We come from the same era, the Hip-Hop Shop/Lush Lounge Generation. A musical scene that cultivated some of the best-known names in Detroit hip-hop.

"I look at our era and I'm super proud of where we were able to take hip-hop in Detroit," he says, "Before us, there was basically nothing. From our generation, nearly everybody was able to make something of themselves. I think the goal at hand now is to put the next generation in a better place than we were in."

But, like every evolution, Royce's career, and that of the history of Detroit hip-hop, is marked with highs and lows.

click to enlarge Royce da 5'9". - JENNY RISHER
  • Jenny Risher
  • Royce da 5'9".

His 2002 debut album, Rock City, was a critical and commercial flop. The eponymous single, produced by Eminem, was too pop-oriented, and, clad in a rhinestone do-rag, Royce came off as a handsome, skilled, but indistinct emcee.

"I think naturally, you come into the music industry a little more accepting and willing to conform because you don't want to mess up anything," he explains, "I thought I had to have a stylist and wear what this person told me to wear, or drop songs that this person told me to release."

Midway through The Allegory, Royce recalls his early career on an interlude called "Rhinestone Doo Rag." The track is full of lamentations that range from Eminem responding to petty beefs to the demagoguery of Donald Trump. It also offers advice for a new generation, "Biggie and Pac died for you rappers so you don't have to/ Malcolm and Martin died for your blackness/pursue your masters/I wore a rhinestone do-rag, but you don't have to/next generation/it's on y'all."

"As you get older and more comfortable in your skin and comfortable in your career, you get more comfortable doing things the way you want to do them," Royce says.

Still, that comfort would come only with time ... and pain.

For several years, Royce was an outcast in the very hip-hop scene that birthed him. In the mid 2000s, a rift occurred between Em and Royce. The beef would escalate to thinly veiled diss songs and eventually a violent exchange between Royce and Proof, where the two pulled guns on each other in Greektown. When Detroit Police responded to the scene and heard the story of two friends who had fallen out, they made them ride to jail handcuffed in the same car.

"Growing up the way I did, my go-to was to confront any kind of negative energy with more negative energy," he says. "Before I knew it, it felt like a black cloud was just following me."

That black cloud brought about frequent fights and isolation. "I thought that because I was from Detroit and could rap well that I automatically deserved respect," he says. "I said and did a lot of things that were very self-serving, not supporting other people. Who wants to get behind that? A lot of that negative energy — I invited it in."

The isolation fueled some of Royce's darkest music, like 2004's Death Is Certain and 2007's The Bar Exam mixtape. But that beef wouldn't be Royce's only drama. At the same time, he was struggling with a debilitating alcohol dependence. In 2006, he was sentenced to a year in jail after his third DUI. It would later be Eminem and Rosenberg who would convince him to enter a treatment program.

"Sometimes things are beyond your control, but sometimes you just think they are," Royce says of that period. "I woke up one day, and I just saw shit, like, super clear. I knew what I wanted. I wanted peace of mind, and I wanted freedom."

Royce gained his freedom through therapy, sobriety, his family, and his music. The 2006 deaths of both Proof and J. Dilla helped Royce, Em, and pretty much everyone else in our little circle realize that there was more to life than dominance of our little corner of the world.

Royce has been consistently releasing music for two decades, and while he's not the most famous rapper in Detroit, he is respected among critics, peers, and a dedicated fan base. "I'd rather rock a smaller venue where every person in there is a real fan than be in an arena where half the people in there are on their phones," he says. "I want to make a connection with music."

These days, that connection is made through music he releases on his own label, Heaven Studios. He also co-owns a studio in the Detroit suburbs by the same name with his partner and friend Denaun Porter. Together, the two are focused on coaching and cultivating a new generation of artists.

"I like Chavis Chandler, Sada Baby, Kash Doll," he says. "Detroit is so multi-layered. There's a Detroit street rap sound like Sada and Tee Grizzley, but there's also Danny Brown, who is doing something that no one has ever seen. You have what me and Marshall do, and then you can have an artist like Trick Trick, who almost looks and sounds like a West Coast artist. It's like Detroit has waves inside of a wave. You can't really sum up in a word what we bring to this industry, but I will say this ... collectively, we are stronger together."

There's strength in numbers, and on The Allegory, Royce has more features than on any of his previous releases. The album provides a showcase for his younger brother, Kid Vishis, and his protege, rapper and singer Ashley Sorrell. It also features appearances by Atlanta rappers T.I., Cyhi the Prynce, and Sy-Ari Da Kid on "Black Excellence."

"Working with Royce was legendary for me," Sy-Ari says. "Being on a song with him and T.I. — it was one of the dopest experiences of my career."

The Allegory also features every member of Griselda, the Buffalo, New York rap group comprised of Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine, and Benny the Butcher. Known for their raw street raps, Griselda signed to Shady Records in 2017, bringing them directly into Royce's orbit. He put them individually on three different songs on The Allegory. "I think they're doing cool shit and contributing cool shit to the culture," he says of the trio.

Hip-hop is an industry built on braggadocio. Every single hip-hop fan has a "Top 5" list — Chris Rock even made an entire film by the same name about the phenomenon. Recently, a fan tweeted that "Royce da 5'9" is the greatest rapper in Detroit." To this, Royce replies, "I left that debate a long time ago, you have to compare me globally." With nearly a million Instagram followers and an international career, Royce is cementing his legendary status not just by the release of his own music, but by helping others feel free to release their own.

"Being young and impressionable in this industry is problematic," he says. "When I came into this industry, I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. I just knew that I wanted to be famous, and because of that, I let the universe kind of push me around ... for a long time."

Royce recalls being young and getting a call out of the blue from legendary Houston rapper Bun B of UGK, who advised him to stop airing his personal grievances publicly. "We have to change up the ways that we think and teach each other to be more self-preserving and goal-oriented," Royce says.

Still, he stops short of calling himself a mentor. "I'm getting there, I think."

As we wrap up our interview, Royce and I trade stories of our children. He has five, while I have just one. His oldest is 21 and his youngest is 2. He says that if his wife would agree to it, he would keep having more children in whom he sees his legacy. We talk about our youth. He laughs when I swear that I once won a battle at St. Andrew's.

On a more somber note, we both tear up as we talk about the recent death of Kobe Bryant.

At the door to Heaven Studios, Royce offers one last piece of advice. "Success in a career is a journey," he says. "The art itself is the center of your truth. Stand in your center and speak your truth — always."

Royce Da 5'9" will host an album-release show for The Allegory at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 20 at the Garden Theater, 3929 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-0888; thegardendetroit.com; Tickets are $20.


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