Royce 5’9” has earned platinum plaques with some of music’s most decorated acts, from Dr. Dre to Eminem to Bruno Mars. But these days, coming off the release of his latest album, Layers, released April 15 via Bad Half Entertainment, the Detroit rapper is actually more focused on something else. “I’m not thinking about any accolades or trophies or anything like that,” he tells Billboard. “I would like the word of mouth to be that I’m one of the best, if not the best. That’s the mission I’m on now, to solidify my spot as one of the great lyricists.”
But in order to even land on that mission, Royce had to go through a grueling yet gratifying transformation, one that caused two years’ worth of writer’s block, but one that also brought him closer to his family: He had to get sober.
The MC, whose real name is Ryan Montgomery, spoke with Billboard last week about how this journey allowed him to craft what he feels could be his sharpest album yet, a collection of stories, reflections and intricate raps over head-knocking beats. By breaking down the album track-by-track, Nickel Nine also dove into the album’s many topics, from politics to Hamilton to infidelity and reconciliation.
This was the first song you wrote after deciding to get sober. How do you feel sobriety impacted your creative process?
Royce 5’9″: Well, it definitely gave me a more clear outlook and understanding of what’s happening. When you’re drinking and writing at the same time, you kind of lose focus of where you’re at. As you get a little bit older, a little wiser, there are more things you want to start talking about. So it was really me putting myself first; before hip-hop, before creativity and just deciding that I wanted to be healthier and I wanted to live. I wanted to keep things intact in my personal life. Once I cut that out, I was forced to create differently. It’s a much more technical process, but it’s fun to do it that way.
The line that ends “Tabernacle” starts off the second song, “Pray,” where you talk about topics from Paris to Nigeria to children being murdered by police. What was the message you were trying to convey?
Royce 5’9″: Sometimes, I’ll come across people and tell them that I’m sober or something, or somebody tells you, “Be safe out there,” or, “I’ll pray for you.” But my thing with that was, don’t pray for me. Pray for everybody. My life ain’t as bad as it could be. I’m grateful. There’s people out there who have it worse than me. Pray for them. These are things that are going on in the world, too, and not just in America. I’m a strong advocate for Black Lives Matter, but this is a different way to put that when you’re talking about all humanity. Black Lives Matter is one thing. Nobody should question it. They should let us have what we have with that movement to stand up for ourselves and our rights. And then there are supposed to be other ways that we channel looking out for all humanity and speaking on how important all lives are. That was the [message].
You’ve said this was inspired by Hamilton, and it does have a play-like quality. How did this plot develop for you?
Royce 5’9″: When I first got sober, a lot of memories started hitting me. I started thinking about a lot of things from my childhood and I actually went and wrote a lot of stories, a lot of personal, introspective songs that I didn’t use for this album. “Hard” was one of the ones that felt best on this album. You know, teachers examining and diagnosing you based off what they think your behavior is or just putting you in some particular kind of box without necessarily looking at themselves or how well they’re doing to get through to you. That’s a gift to be able to do that and I don’t think every certified teacher has that gift. A lot of times I didn’t do really well in classes because I wasn’t interested in the teacher or the lesson.
That all encompasses the whole Hamilton thing, because I went to that play and I learned so much about history that I didn’t even know [or] don’t remember learning. But because it was put to me in hip-hop form and it kept my attention, it was so interesting to me. I walked away from that shit damn near feeling like a history buff. I’m not a Broadway guy; that’s just not my style. I went in there expecting not to like it, but I was floored.
I heard that Ice Cube was talking to somebody and they told him, “If you could write a song in story form, you could write a movie.” Then he went and wrote Friday. That’s inspiration in itself. So when I talk about the inspiration of the Hamilton play, I’m talking about that and I’m talking about the structure of [“Hard”], how it breaks down into different flows, spoken-word style, and then it goes into this singing chorus and then it switches into this African thing and you can just imagine people onstage doing things that’s visually stimulating to keep your attention. I didn’t want to go too Hamilton with it, even though I can. I don’t know if they’re ready for that yet.
You talk about your uncle and his crack problem, then reflect on your own alcoholism. How did recovery help you understand your difficulties and those of others in a different way?
Royce 5’9″: Once I started going to [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings, that’s when I really realized that nobody’s problems are really bigger than anybody else’s. If you woke up five days last week and didn’t know where you were, how is that any different from me going to the studio, bullshitting with making music and almost losing my family? Both are just as tragic if you think about it.
So when I reflect on my uncle’s crack problem, I figure, how can I say anything about him? I’m an alcoholic. How can I even judge him? If anything, I should be trying to pick him up. Shit. Just because I’m the guy in the family that’s making the money doesn’t mean there’s not bad shit being said about me for having a problem. So that’s kind of the reflection with that.
It’s just like having a son with autism. I was one of them kids growing up, calling kids “retards” and doing shit like that until I got an understanding of autism… It gave me a newfound outlook on it. I would never do that now because it hits close to home with me now. That’s what growing up is about: learning shit.
You rap about your son’s autism on “Wait.” What have you learned about autism following your son’s diagnosis that you think other people should understand?
Royce 5’9″: I’ll just speak on my son; I don’t want to speak about other people’s kids. He goes to normal school. He’s in the normal curriculum and he goes back and forth from learning disabled to regular curriculum. He’s on pace to graduate on time. He’s a little slower with his speech. He started talking a little bit later. A lot of things mentally, he’s developing just a little bit slower. But for the most part he’s normal.
On the flip side of it, there are also things that they do that stand out that’s a lot different from other kids. Like, my son’s memory is off the charts. He has basically a photographic memory. He’s special. I’ll put him in piano classes and shit like that and he’ll memorize all 88 keys. He’s like a prodigy.
But he does things that will have you wondering, like, “What’s up with him?” Like, we’ll be sitting down eating and he’ll ask the waitress some shit like, “What’s your name? Alright, well, I need you to go get me some fries,” which would come off as rude if you think you’re talking to a regular kid. So I’ll have to figure out a way to tell him if he’s being rude and explain to him the right way to talk to people in that field. Certain things they don’t grasp; it’s just little things like that. But other than that, he’s just like the rest of my kids: pretty normal.
This song is a rap clinic — you have complicated rhyme schemes and multi-syllabic patterns. Why is that an important part of your lyrical arsenal?
Royce 5’9″: I came [up] in the showcases at [Detroit venue] the Hip-Hop Shop and it’s just how I learned to rhyme. As far as the complex rhyme schemes and syllables, that’s just basically taking every sound that a word makes and matching that sound up from the beginning of the word to another word. I try to even do that with every word in the sentence, rhyme every word in a sentence with every word in the next and completely match the syllables, too. You know who’s a master at that? Roc Marci[ano]. He came to my show and I had to tell him, “You a genius with the syllables. How do you do that?” He was like, “That’s just my style.” I don’t know if he just didn’t want to tell me no secrets or that’s just his answer, but I really admire that about him.
“Hello” feat. Melanie Rutherford
“Misses” feat. K. Young
These three songs are all super candid; you talk about infidelity, drugs, your wife nearly leaving you and then reconciling. What have you learned about marriage and relationships over the years?
Royce 5’9″: It takes a lot of communication to keep on going. My wife is at a stage now where she needs to be complimented a lot. It’s like she wants me to go back to this romantic kid that I used to be, but that I don’t really remember being. I’ve always been a nice guy, but I don’t remember being a romantic. But this is thousands and thousands and thousands of bottles later and years of hip-hop later. I’m a totally different person, but she wants me to channel my inner 17-year-old, which is very difficult for me to do.
But I think that happens in marriages, especially when you guys have been together for 20 years. My oldest son is 18, so I’ve been with my girl 21 years. We’ve been married 14 years. I think it takes some therapy to a certain point, especially when you introduce infidelity to a relationship. It takes a lot of therapy and a lot of one leaning on the other in order to make it through it.
“Dope!” feat. Loren W. Oden
The song “Dope!” is all about selling and wanting to sell drugs. What was the overall theme you wanted to convey?
Royce 5’9″: If “Dope!” was a picture I was drawing, it’d be a caricature. It’s an over-dramatized version of the mind frame of what I feel is the average kid ever since the [Ronald] Reagan era. That whole era spawned nothing but dope fiend babies. We call them ’80s babies in the streets. They either became killers, drug dealers, drug users or all of the above. A lot of kids I knew growing up, their answer to everything was that they were going to go sell dope. That was the easiest cop-out to everything. It’s like, is that all you want to do? You just want to sell dope? That’s the answer to everything?
That’s why it fuses right into “America,” because everybody is born and raised to think like dead men. How many times have you heard that there’s three options we’ve got? We can either play ball, rap or we can sell dope. Some people actually think those are the options because we can’t even grasp the concept of getting an education. We can’t even think that far because we’re being told in school that we ain’t gonna be shit. “Don’t even try that. That’s gonna be hard.” You know the kind of effect that can have on a f—ing kid?
What is it about Pusha and Ross that made you want them on this track?
Royce 5’9″: Those are two guys that I’ve always wanted to work with. I actually worked with Pusha way back in the day when we both first got into the game — early Neptunes days. But he’s been killing shit for so long, I just wanted to get back in with the new Pusha. And I feel like Ross is criminally underrated as an MC. So I wanted to see what would happen if I pulled them into my world for a second. I felt like what [Minister Louis] Farrakhan is saying on the hook totally embodied where we were in the album and its message.
“Quiet” feat. Tiara and Mr. Porter
One lyric that stands out is in the hook: “I done cried so much that I can’t even wipe the tears away.” What tears were you thinking about when you were crafting your verses on that track?
Royce 5’9″: I’m thinking to myself that there’s no one memory that sticks out in my mind anymore. I can’t really think of anything that I haven’t been through. If you want to talk about jail, alcohol abuse, violent acts towards me, violent acts acted out towards other people, being blackballed out the business, making horrible mistakes; anything you can think of that can break a grown man down, make him quit, make him run away, I’ve been through it tenfold.
[Eminem] was actually the person that I called when I decided to get sober. We still have conversations to this day about sobriety in general and we’ll just swap experiences and thoughts. That’s very helpful when trying to battle something like addiction. I learned a lot from him by him just telling me his experiences and I’m pretty sure he learned a lot from me. That’s basically how it goes in the world of sobriety.
You say, “It’s just the way of man to be taken by the same thing that took his brother/We don’t learn from each other, we learn to look the other/Way, when one of us in trouble.” What sparked that for you?
Royce 5’9″: My dad is an addict. I went to rehab with him. He told me, “You’re not wired like a lot of your friends are. Stay away from that shit altogether: alcohol, drugs, whatever.” It took him down to a point where he had to build himself back up. Thank God that he did. I respect him for that. I’ve seen him go through the same thing and then I went through the same thing, even though he told me.
I’m not ashamed of anything that I’ve ever been through. I think I’m somebody that the younger generation can look at, like, “You would be lucky in 15 years to be me, to still be here, lucky to still be healthy, to still have your family, to have everything intact and to have your f—ing marbles instead of drinking it away with lean and shit.” I’d love to get out there and tell my story to hopefully scare some of these youngin’s from doing that shit too much, because it’s designed to kill you.
You’re asking, “How do I stop being underrated?/How do I get props like, let’s say, a Drake?/But I rap with the skill set of, let’s say, a Black Thought or an Elhzi?” What would you want your legacy to be when everything’s said and done?
Royce 5’9″: Right now I’m not thinking about any accolades or trophies or anything like that. I would like the word of mouth to be that I’m one of the best, if not the best. That’s the mission I’m on now, to solidify my spot as one of the great lyricists. That’s really all I think about. I’m just gonna have fun with it, put out as much music as possible and not let it stress me out as much.