April 8, 2008

Royce Da 5'9" - Death Is Certain (February 24, 2004)

There are three specific moments in the life and career of Ryan Montgomery , also known as Royce Da 5'9", that influenced the recording of his second studio album, Death Is Certain.

The first moment was when Royce's debut album, Rock City, leaked to the Interweb. Columbia Records was having a hell of a time trying to sell an underground rapper to a mainstream audience anyway: in fact, they actually resorted to having Ryan fill the token rapper role on the first single from their newest (white) songstress Willa Ford (who was formerly known as the ex of one of the Backstreet Boys, but who is best known now for getting her kit off for Playboy after the music career stalled; not that there is anything wrong with that), an experiment which failed miserably (although I have a clear recollection of Carson Daly on Total Request Live, who always reported with both elation and confusion whenever an artist he actually liked appeared on MTV's countdown, gratefully attempt to introduce Royce to an uncaring audience when the video dropped). Right at the point when they realized the impossibility of the situation (not even having Eminem on the first single helped, although if you'll remember, "Rock City" sucked left nuts anyway), Rock City leaked, forcing Columbia to scrap a release in the States, instead offloading the album overseas. Royce recorded some new tracks and retooled "Rock City" (by deleting the guitars from the original mix) and released Rock City 2.0, but at that point it was too late, as nobody bought the damn thing (everyone had already downloaded the original version), which led to Royce getting the boot and ending up downtrodden at the Koch graveyard.

The second moment was when Marshall Mathers got a little too happy with his fountain pen, which resulted in signing his weed carriers D12, Detroit stalwart Obie Trice, and, of all people, Curtis fucking Jackson to Shady Records. The final signee was especially insulting to Ryan, as he had himself requested a record deal from Shady after the Columbia debacle, and was flatly refused by his former Bad Meets Evil rhyme partner. Trying to be the bigger person, Royce accepted Em's invitation to perform on his Anger Management tour that year, but their relationship quickly deteriorated, and Royce was soon dropped from the tour amid a ridiculous amount of diss tracks coming from both Ryan's and D12's camps. (It should be noted that Eminem never directly participated in any diss toward Ryan.) Royce released a 2-disc mixtape called Build & Destroy, which collected most of these disses and included some rare, random shit for good measure.

However, this tragic turn of events for Royce's career would lead to the third defining moment: Royce turning to the bottle. His alcoholism took over at this point, leading to chronic depression (there's nothing like a depressant to chase the blues away, as my boy Lenny from The Simpsons would have me believe) that would fuel the entirety of his sophomore release, Death Is Certain, a much darker and more somber affair than its predecessor. he seemed to get all of the beef out of his system (having it only pop up in minor spurts here and there) and focused on improving his rhymes, using the low-level beats provided (mainly by Carlos Broady), and the one big-budget banger (from frequent collaborator DJ Premier, the only "name" producer on the album) to get his point across.

Most critics praised Death Is Certain, calling it his finest and most polished effort. It wasn't the biggest chart-topper in history, but Royce never expected it to be: he was an underground puppy who was plucked from the streets by obnoxious children who didn't know a thing about caring for a pet, and with interference from the parents, Ryan was now back at home, where he could thrive.

So, about Death Is Certain...

Useless rap album intro, but thankfully it's only twelve seconds long. It works a lot better if you put tracks one and two together.

Nice way to start off your second real album. I love how Royce swipes lyrics from Marshall's "Lose Yourself"; it seems appropriate, as Royce is still the only rapper out there that masterfully meshes with Em's flow.

Sounds like an obvious single, but I don't remember if it was ever marketed as such. Essentially a lesson in "How To Sell Royce Da 5'9" In Five Minutes Or Less".


The beat isn't that good, but what plays underneath the hook reminds me of Carlos "Six July" Broady's instrumental for Biggie's "My Downfall", a far superior track.

A weird voicemail interlude that you can feel free to skip. It doesn't even matter that DJ Premier is the final caller, even though that message leads into...

Primo blesses Ryan with easily the best song on Death is Certain. It's almost as good as Rock City's "Boom", but much darker. But it shouldn't surprise you that Primo brings the best instrumental, especially considering that the remainder of the album features board work by Carlos Broady, Joe Noname, and Guy Who Bags Groceries At The Shop 'N' Shack And Makes Beats During Smoke Breaks.

The beat is a miss, and Ryan's lyrics are okay at best. But I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, what with such a creative title and all.

I love the fact that he actually addresses the concern of hip hop fans that there are barely any name producers on Death Is Certain. Lyrically, Royce seems to have only gotten better, but some of the choices he makes are a bit questionable, such as the inclusion of the female vocalist on the hook, which clearly isn't necessary.

10. I & ME
This is actually pretty good, as Royce touches on some of his anxieties and wonders how he went from working with Dr. Dre to ending up groundskeeping at the Koch graveyard. I didn't need to hear the chick's threats at the very beginning, and I'm sure Royce could have come up with something better than ripping off 2Pac for the hook, but whatever.

11. BEEF
So he first rips off Pac, and now he blatantly borrows from Biggie, although he does so over an interpolation of Biggie's original "What's Beef?" beat (which was originally produced by Carlos Broady anyway).

12. BOMB 1ST
I could have done without the hook, which only exists to repeat the title of the song into your subconscious, and the sound effects layered throughout the second verse are cued up too loudly, but otherwise this track is short and sweet.

This track is okay, if only because the hook, which sounds whimsical and carefree, is a funny contrast to Royce's threatening lyrics.

I don't have the time nor the patience to figure out what happened to part one. Royce goes through the stages of grief over a beat that suits the content; at least it does to me, as I imagine that Royce would want to celebrate a life rather than mourn.

Songs like this are why Royce would be the first rapper I would sign if I could leverage this blog into a label deal of some sort. He talks about how his album is dark because that's what he wants to listen to, and admits that his own wife doesn't like his CD. (He says she would rather listen to Joe Budden, which is hilarious to me.) Carlos Broady interrupts constantly, but this song rocks, even though the title is mislabelled on the album itself as "Something's Wrong Him", which makes no fucking sense.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Death Is Certain has some problems with the beats, but surprisingly, those issues aren't so bad that they make the album suffer. As such, it's actually pretty fucking good, and I can see why folks regard this as Royce's finest effort. Ryan also comes across as astonishingly candid, addressing many of the same issues that fans and critics alike had when his sophomore effort was announced, often within the scope of his actual songs, making for an oddly meta experience.

BUY OR BURN? This album deserves your money, not just because Royce is one of my favorite rappers (although that helps), but because his album is actually good. Give it a shot; you won't be disappointed, but if you are, you have personal issues that a blog such as mine can't help you with.

BEST TRACKS: "Hip Hop"; "Something's Wrong With Him"; "Death Is Certain Pt. 2 (It Hurts)"; "Regardless"; "Throwback"

RELATED INFO: The newly-digital Hip Hop Site (I miss when they sold vinyl) announced a couple of weeks ago a definitive version of Rock City, subtitled 3.0, available for purchase/download, which includes every song earmarked for each version of Royce's debut, with the apparent blessing of Ryan himself. It may be worth a look-see.


Royce Da 5'9" - Rock City


  1. the most felonious vocalist in the wide world of showbusinessApril 08, 2008

    Royce can rhyme his ass off. I own and enjoy this album but I've been listening to The Bar Exam mixtape a lot lately. He also pops up on Statik Selektah's retail album on Back Against The Wall featuring the one and only Cormega. That song is mighty ill to me. People should check out The Bar Exam if the production has detracted from their enjoyment of Royce. Gay name aside, he deserves our attention.

  2. yo max good review, you recognized that Hip Hop is a real classic,

    i would like to see a review of his third official album Independents Day, i think its underrated, because it had no promotion, there are some hot tracks to check out like the 2nd track I OWE YOU


  3. Max, I bought this album solely off your review and never even having heard Royce rap before (one day this will prove disastrous). And I really liked it. Hip hop is an AWESOME song and for some reason I really liked the hook (?). Anyway thanks very much for introducing me to Royce. Keep it up!