Royce Da 5ft 9
Death Is Certain

as a genre, hip-hop offers so much linguistic freedom that it's easy to forget just how self-contained it can be.

From scatterbrained underground wordsmiths like MF Doom, Beans, and El-P to quotable pop-culture fiends like Ludacris, Ghostface, and Jay-Z, the best emcees can dictate trends and explore parallel dimensions with just a pad and a pen.

Of course, this open invitation often yields some undisciplined results, as countless wannabes sacrifice storytelling for punchlines, or else keep it so abstract that their verses come off like so much gibberish.

With that in mind, Royce da 5'9" should be like a breath of fresh air, an antithesis to quick-buck gimmicks and underground obfuscators, a street level straight-talker, a thug poet, an emcee's emcee.

In fact, aside from Royce's preoccupation with former partner-turned-pariah Eminem, Death is Certain could just as soon have been made in '94 rather than '04. No references to pilates, Lucy Liu, or black Warren Buffetts to be found. No politics or Prada either.

Instead, Royce delivers pure emcee essentialism on his sophomore effort, sticking close to home but eschewing even the sociological avenues of ghetto narrative in favor of strict hip-hop metacriticism.

In a sense, you can't blame Royce for the preponderance of industry navel-gazing and b-boy symbology ("this is rap basketball/stats all you got"). After all, Royce's backstory is his biggest draw. A longtime Slim Shady sidekick dating back to the duo's roots in the Detroit underground, Royce fell out with the crown prince of hip-hop after his much-publicized feud with Em's crew, D12, a war of words that soon escalated into a guns-brandished brush-up between Royce and D12 member Proof that left both emcees briefly behind bars. Though their beef since has been squashed, Royce still stands on the outside looking in at the Aftermath empire.

Unsurprisingly, getting his ass cast out of such a highly-profitable hip-hop Paradise has turned Royce’s thoughts towards the nature of the beast itself, causing him to ruminate, reminisce, and ramble on enough to wear out even the long-winded OG of fallen rebels.

Royce positions himself early on as a “Throwback,” a would-be inheritor to the thug-rap throne who got sidetracked by the machinations of a corrupt industry. The rejection still stinging, he enumerates the perils of the hip-hop game even as he rededicates himself to the risks inherent in the art form. Royce couldn’t have picked a better title than Death is Certain, as the entire tone of the album borders on nihilistic in its ill-fated cycles of self-made success and irreversible downfall. “Gangsta” laments the loneliness of a man who “knows his gun and his knife/more than he knows his son and his wife,” a sad prelude to “T.O.D.A.Y,” where Royce places all his stock in whether he can get the crowd to feel him once last time.

If it all sounds a little too morose and myopic, it doesn’t help that Royce has abandoned the vicious sense of humor that made his underground-sensation mixtapes such a well-rounded listen. Gone is the scathing burger-baiting of D12 scale-buster Bizarre, as well as the promised ass-beatings for Proof and the rest of the crew, replaced by veiled references to Slim that are far less contexutually revealing than Courtney Love’s, and far less culturally relevant thanNellie McKay’s.

Not just that, but it’s even more of a chore to parse Royce’s hip-hop parables because of the bargain-basement beats and sub-gangsta hooks that threaten to sink the entire endeavor after the first five tracks, which sadly find Royce dropping science (“What I Know”) and vowing solidarity (“I Promise”) to none but the most tone-deaf ears. Fortunately, DJ Premier hands Royce his far-and-away hottest beat on “Hip Hop,” and the newly-energized emcee finishes the campaign in somewhat better form, still relying too much on a self-reflexive methodology that too often ends up chasing its own tail.

Hip-hop will always be a fascinating microcosm for society and for the self, but Royce’s once-bitten, twice-shy solliloquies show that he’s still not quite ready to take a step outside.

Reviewed by: Josh Love
Reviewed on: 2004-03-16
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