Monday, April 18, 2016

Royce Da 5'9" - Layers Review

Artistic culture has always been hard to those who stagnate, replicate, and traditionalize something that was once original. Artists, especially street rappers, have had a difficult time maintaining notoriety in the Internet age due to their sheer lack of progression, focusing so much on the trials and tribulations of their past without thinking how outdated it all might sound to an outsider. Bring in Royce Da 5'9", arguably Hip-Hop's most bland emcee. His concise form of lyrical-based Rap has bred him for such a label, turning into to a walking, talking caricature of how many perceive your prototypical backpack rapper to be. Cocky, judgemental, snide, boisterous, superior, or, in their eyes, 'real.' It's not baseless mind you, the rise of Hip-Hop in the late 80's and early 90's saw this style of lyricism soar, the irony unbeknownst to Royce and other similar rappers that it only did so off nonconformity and ingenuity. It was a rarity in music at the time and now, three decades later, we still stare down releases like Layers with respect, when in reality, how Hip-Hop as a whole lives and breathes, we shouldn't. As the great Dave Chappelle would say, when keeping it real goes wrong. 

If you can't already tell I have an issue with hypocrisy. Accusing rhymers of being like an "assembly line" as he does here on 'Shine,' when he'd fit the bill more than anyone else, irrationally draws disdain on my behalf. The three lines that surround that one start as follows: "We move in silence," "I was sent by God," and "I'll eat you for breakfast." This man is not original, and unless there's serious self-awareness I'm missing, Royce fits his own criteria flawlessly. As a purveyor of the realness, flaunting on tracks like 'Flesh' about being a "real nigga in the flesh," Royce Da 5'9" should understand by now that acting as the superior emcee will get you nowhere. He even acknowledges it on 'Wait,' where he spits "I don't speak on behalf of myself, but my impeccable rep does." Um, no, you do speak on your behalf throughout the bulk of this album. True visionaries like Andre 3000, MF DOOM, or Black Thought rarely mention their excellence, letting the music do the work, but when that's significantly lacking one must retreat to simple battle rhymes; empty and easy, as Royce does here.

I'll never deny that he's a capable lyricist, he gets by. What's worse though, as he examines on many songs here, is that he's actually had quite the life. 'Tabernacle' can answer this quite succinctly, telling the story of December 29th, when his grandmother died, his son was born, and he met his future partner-in-crime Eminem. That is one hell of a day, absolutely worthy to rap about. Problem is, he hardly raps it, spilling every detail over our heads with no subtlety, narrating it through haphazard rhyme schemes that fail to flow much at all. It's sloppily done, a shame for how impactful it could've been. On other story-telling fronts there's the strange middle portion of the album centered around 'Misses,' where Royce's mistress intends to blackmail him for all he's worth. Here he rhymes efficiently, but it's the story that catches everyone off guard. A man praising the worth of family can't stay faithful? It's inexcusable but when it happens rappers tend to take this moment to reflect on their troubles. Not Royce though, choosing instead to take the opportunity to rag on his wife's (now reasonable) hysterics through skits, showing no signs of remorse in the process.

These are just some examples, really the album is littered with content much like this. It's a shame cause there are well-intentioned songs like 'Pray' and 'America' that promote selflessness and explain beliefs in a strong manner, they're just overshadowed. Not only by the content but the means by which it accesses you. This returns me to the originality, where not a single idea hasn't been pre-ordained by someone before. On 'Hard' Royce speaks of his love towards the Broadway hit Hamilton, a fine nod, but then goes to completely replicate it with 'Lincoln' and the surrounding skits, forming a theatrical palate and character development that's out of place, for Royce and Layers. Then there's the poor man's attempt at imitating Kendrick Lamar and his wide idea range (like on To Pimp A Butterfly) or his conceptual fidelity (like on good kid, m.A.A.d city), culminating in the finale to 'Off' where Royce's verse literally trails off exactly like 'Sing About Me,' but with no cohesive purpose to speak of.

I do feel bad spending most of my review criticizing Layers' poor decisions but they're so obvious and prevalent that they're hard to ignore. There are times, as I've alluded to, that Layers succeeds. From 'America' till the closing the LP is not half bad, playing measures safe, resulting in something that's at least marginally enjoyable. His rhymes can be good, his voice is enticing, the hooks are passable, but what's in his brain scatters any chance Layers has to quality. The pomposity becomes irritating and when you've heard every facet of Layers before its importance diminishes significantly. Royce even acknowledges its influences, name-dropping what must be at least 50 different emcees throughout the course of the album; Tupac, Jay Electronica, J.Cole, they're all here. It's his way to feel hip, to feel in the know, and no matter how much time he spends condemning mainstream Hip-Hop and trend-hoppers it's clear, based on how often he attempts to relate to popular artists, that he secretly wishes he was one. Realness in the eyes of the streets will only get you so far, to excel in a creative field one must be creative.

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