It’s striking that Royce Da 5’9″ ‘s latest album has no room for hating on usual targets like women, gays, or wack MCs. Instead: you, Eminem, Dre, 50 Cent, Jews, himself. He inhabits a strange moral universe, one where “if I wasn’t a real n—a this shit would not bother me but it does” is a boast, where in a recent interview he insisted that his goal is to “disassociate myself from the negative stuff” while dropping the most violent album of his career, rhyming that “Beef is when you die because of your CD/When I come from your blind side before you see me” on his remake of Biggie’s “What’s Beef,” then flipping it up again with samples of a man about to off his girlfriend, and a kid fantasizing about shooting up his school.
Death Is Certain is an album made richer with each reference: invoking Pac but also 50’s invocation of Pac on a dis track against Ja Rule; invoking Chuck D on nationalism but then MC Eiht on ’50s sci-fi B-flick thrillers; flipping up lines from Royce’s own mixtapes to show just how he’s changed his attitude; asking if he can make it without beats from Poke and Tone over the same Hayes “Ike’s Mood” sample said Trackmasters used for Foxy Brown—and Puffy before them on Mary J. Blige’s “I Love You”—but is it really Marley Marl he wants to bring to mind?
There’s also plenty of intricacy at a purely verbal level, sculpting a limited vocabulary into concise, tightly woven narrative sans his old, rolling, cosmic punchline cavalcade of “never is like equivalent to forever twice” dimestore philosophy, his floaty poetry jam flow, and his dumb jokes that he’d carried over from freestyling days. You may not find the album funny at all unless you get the same kick I do out of lines like “I know we got drama/but I will still show up at your funeral/and hug your ugly ass momma.” A true relief from a dude whose last album included a track about his dick called . . . wait for it . . . “My Friend.” Like he says on “Something’s Wrong,” “I’m permanently angry/so fuck a metaphor/fuck hip-hop.” He pulls everything so close there’s hardly a downbeat to spare, breaking and swinging lines around with intimidating creativity fulla stop-start gotchas and cutup melodies pivoting on rhymes scattered in the middle of words, not to mention clauses and sentences.
Producer Carlos Broady delivers tracks rich with pianos, strings soaked in ’70s soul, booming drums, roiling dark textures perfect for Royce’s newfound menacing rubato. Those sonics are maybe the strongest argument for Royce’s self-proclaimed “throwback” label, carrying both sides of the early ’90s as if Q-Tip had produced for Dre, or Prince Paul for Ice Cube. So how can he accumulate such a body count on his tracks while warning about the dangerous way the flow strayed? Over the course of Death Is Certain he doesn’t distinguish between literally shooting bullets or just spitting fierce battle rhymes, and in neither case are diamonds, girls, fame, or any other motives present outside of plain bitterness against Eminem and all the other former partners he fell out with. He’d probably tell you that his threats aren’t about hurting anyone, but about working through his own anger and hurt in the public eye. (Even his harshest mixtape dis of Em included buddy Tre Little offering to settle the beef with just one phone call. Em replied in kind on D-12’s latest that Royce should have called first—Emo rap has really changed up “battles.”)
If it wasn’t too corny I’d add the final irony—that his beef with Shady gave him the same thing that took Em to the top: enough unresolved confusion and pain to push a clever kid with a smart mouth into an artist with something to say. Even if that statement is mainly about killing you, me, and Jewish label execs.