For someone who's been in the game since 1999, Royce Da 5'9" has had a hard time getting his full life story down on wax. His first five albums were more than enough to show his considerable rapping abilities, but were recorded when he was still a precariously functioning alcoholic, known to down a liter and a half of Patron per day. Since getting sober, he's found a ton of success with three groups, two containing rap legends (Bad Meets Evil and PRhyme) and one made up of a dream team of battle-tested spitters (Slaughterhouse), but understandably, the projects Royce has recorded with them haven't been all that personal. His sixth album, Layers, is the first he's recorded since his sobriety began in 2012, and thusly, the Detroit veteran has called it a "reintroduction." It's undoubtedly the most honest and experiential project in his catalog, the first one where we get a sense of Royce the human, rather than Royce the unstoppable motormouth.
In a recent interview on Hot 97, Royce said that Layers is "probably what my first album should have sounded like," and sure enough, it begins with a story compelling enough to make us wonder why Royce hasn't told it until now. "Tabernacle" leads us through "the most significant day" in his life, one that shaped the man he is today and jump-started his rap career, and its autobiographical detail and setup of Layers' central themes couldn't be better executed. We're introduced to Royce's strong belief in divine fate, which later informs the premises of "Pray," "Shine," and "Gottaknow," as well as his turbulent relationship with his wife, which pops up again several more times throughout the album. Were Layers a perfect album, the emotional and personal heft of "Tabernacle" would be equaled by the following 16 tracks, but instead, many of them buckle under that weight.
"Pray" and "Hard" slide Royce from the peak morality of the intro down to smirking forgiveness ("I pray for foes, I pray for hoes, I pray for everybody"), and then unfettered celebration ("I guess fucking the baddest bitches around wasn't hard as I thought"), which is a nice progression that shows us three distinct windows into his multifaceted personality. It's humanizing in a way that much of his previous music isn't-- he's still boasting and talking shit, but instead of doing it with a chip on his shoulder, he's doing it with more wisdom and awareness than before (not to mention a pretty decent singing voice). "I'm a Steinway grand piano, they Casios, I would gladly pass them the torch" is pretty indicative of Royce's mentality at this point: aware of his considerable talent, but comfortable with the niche he's carved out in his career. Three tracks in, the ambitious themes of "Tabernacle" have somewhat faded into the horizon, but they're still coloring Royce's more street-level tracks.
Things kind of start to fall apart on "Startercoat." What begins as another key chapter in Royce's story ("I'm still in cars with a lotta coke, but on the brighter side they taught us how to drive 'em though") changes directions on a dime to become a screed against the "10 Best Rappers Of All Time" list Billboard dropped last year. (Side note: It seems like every rapper who treats the title of "lyricist" like a holy ordinance has chimed in on this truly inessential, four-sentences-of-justification-per-artist list, with Royce now joining The Game and Jadakiss in getting way too worked up about a really effective piece of clickbait.) Anyway, Royce is somewhat justifiably mad about 2Pac's absence, especially since he copped his own UNLV Starter jacket swag from the Cali legend. That's all well and good, but if you're going to argue this case, you'd better bring something stronger to the table than "this great rapper inspired me, another great rapper, and therefore he's great." Royce misses out on an opportunity to explain in detail the impact that Pac had on his life, instead squandering the song away by blustering about his own career ("I'm a pure artist, I don't need to see the charts to know") and that damn coat.
There are more worthwhile themes and subject matter on Layers than your favorite rapper's last five albums combined, but they're presented in a jumbled, abrupt fashion and often immediately brushed aside for more banal one-liners, hooks or skits. Take for example "America," which has some truly fantastic lines that touch on premises that could be backbones for entire songs: Royce feeling like he's "put here to push European whips," "I'll take poppin' shots at n*ggas over receiving posthumous props from n*ggas any day," etc. But presented together with little organization other than complex rhyme schemes, all of these lose some of their impact, especially when backing up against clichés like "land of the free, home of the brave" or the hook's incessant "whip it" repetition. Royce's mind is bursting with ideas, all of which he can deliver with hyper-technical lyrical precision, but the specificity that makes his deftest observations stand out is lost when he tries to make every track equal parts dominant rap boast, indictment of American politics/culture, autobiographical snapshot, and catchy singalong. There's plenty of room for each of those to get airtime on a 64 minute long project, but more often than not, Royce runs through all of them in 64 seconds, smearing contrasting colors everywhere in the process.
Layers is Royce's first true "ambitious" project. He doesn't seem content with merely finding hot beats and rapping his ass off anymore, which is admirable because he could feasibly ride that career path into a nice retirement if he wanted to. He's got all the necessary components for the magnum opus he's always wanted-- a vibrant mind, a story worth hearing, access to a stellar roster of producers-- and Layers comes close to achieving that goal, but doesn't quite get there. Knowing Royce, he's probably already back in the lab improving on this formula and making the proper tweaks to insure that his next project packs the necessary wallop. All of the variables are in place, the hypothesis has been tested and proven, now Royce just needs to perfect his equation.