Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” My use of that quote was unintentional: the fact that it is attached to a review that is running so close to the holiday named after the man is just a happy coincidence. But I believe that message certainly applies to the subject of today's post, Ryan “Royce da 5'9”” Montgomery, who has certainly seen his share of both challenge and comfort.
Ryan has been forced to reinvent himself time and again in order to appease the hip hop gods. The Detroit-based emcee first began life as an associate of Marshal “Eminem” Mathers, and had the good fortune to still be tight with him when Em's career took the fuck off. While this was supposed to lead to bigger and better things (Royce was one of the only guests to appear on Eminem's major label debut, 1999's The Slim Shady LP), he hit a roadblock otherwise known as “his mouth”: Ryan was first in line for ghostwriting duties on what was going to be Em's mentor Dr. Dre's comeback album 2001 (technically still called Chronic 2000 at that time), but he blabbed about his role to the press, which hurt Dre's feelings, and he was immediately fired off of the project. A major falling out with Marshall himself soon followed, leaving Ryan alone within the music industry.
Luckily, Royce had already secured a record deal with Columbia during the golden years, and he attempted to release his debut to capitalize on his earlier buzz, garnered through his singles from Game Recordings (the label probably best known for the Hip Hop Honeys series of DVDs that I'm sure some of you two are, um, more than a little bit acquainted with) and some earlier tracks with Marshall himself (recording under the duo Bad Meets Evil). That album, Rock City, was bootlegged to high heaven, and Ryan's attempt at a revision, entitled Rock City 2.0, hit store shelves far too late for anyone to give an actual shit, so he soon lost that deal, too. A relationship with Koch Records, then best known for signing the artists that literally nobody else would, resulted in his follow-up, Death Is Certain, recorded under a haze of alcohol and depression; while this also failed to ignite the charts and resulted in him losing that deal, too, it was met with critical acclaim and is seen by many (this critic included) as the man's finest work. But that's not good enough an ending for this tale, so Royce had to go the independent route and fail miserably there, too, and, somewhat unrelated, he fell out with Eminem's group D-12, resulting in multiple dis attacks (although none of this was aimed in Eminem's direction, oddly) and an eventual one-year prison sentence for a DUI.
Upon his release in 2007, he tried to remain in the public consciousness, releasing mixtape after mixtape and quietly ghostwriting for the likes of Puff Daddy. He also reconciled with D-12, even managing to go on tour with them for a short period of time. This got him by, but it wasn't until he was invited to appear on fellow underground stalwart Joe Budden's “Slaughterhouse”, alongside Crooked I, Joell Ortiz, and Nino Bless, that his luck would change for the better. Empowered by their shared history of major label duplicity, low sales figures, and reams of respect within hip hop that didn't translate financially, Ryan, Crooked, Joell, and Budden formed the supergroup Slaughterhouse, named after the song they all appeared on, and began recording together. (Nino Bless apparently wasn't invited to any of these sessions, and when approached, his manager wouldn't let him step away from the fryer long enough to respond to questions.)
Slaughterhouse began taking the blogs by storm, unleashing track after track of some of the finest shit-talking of recent memory. (It helps that these guys were legitimately angry at their collective past experiences with the music industry: Royce had finally found some kindred spirits who had also been fucked over multiple times.) Eventually, their work (and their debut group project, the simply-titled Slaughterhouse, released through E1, which was formerly known as (gasp!) Koch Records) caught the ears of major labels, ironically enough, who had decided that now was the time to cut a deal with these four guys who had previously earned their respective shots and fumbled all of them (although it wasn't always the artist's fault, especially in the case of Crooked I). The quartet eventually landed at Shady Records, run by (gasp!) Eminem, and now have a major label's deep pockets funding their every move. Circle of life and all that shit.
Royce's fourth solo album, Street Hop, released through a joint venture between Ryan's own imprint M.I.C Records (which stands for “Make It Count”) and indie label One, came after the Slaughterhouse invasion, landing on store shelves a few months after the group's debut. It was preceded by The Revival EP, a quickie designed to whet the appetites of potential customers: all four tracks that appeared on that EP (which I apparently reviewed quite a long time ago – I do like my short-as-hell albums) are featured on Street Hop as well, albeit with a slight alteration in the case of one of the songs (I'll get to that in a second). Executive-produced by DJ Premier, a frequent collaborator, Street Hop was Royce's attempt to finally reach the heights that he had been promised a decade prior. After a series of false starts (this album was originally announced in 2006) and that aforementioned prison sentence that resulted in one of many delays for the project, it was eventually met with critical acclaim and low sales figures that, while not great, didn't entirely suck, thereby proving to Ryan Montgomery that he was on the right path, and he just needed ten years of trial and error in order to appreciate it more when it actually happened for him.
Now some of you two may remember that I've already run a Reader Review of Street Hop way back in 2010. My rules for submissions have not changed: I still don't accept reviews for albums I've already written about. One of my more recent changes was that I also don't plan on visiting every single project that I've received a Reader Review for. I don't plan on making this a regular thing, but I've been sitting on my Street Hop review for over a full year and just now decided that I may as well let it loose, even though I'm not entirely satisfied with the actual writing. Better to let it go and move on than hold it back forever, I suppose; how else was I ever supposed to get to Success Is Certain? (Actually, the question you should be asking yourself is, "So how many other reviews are you holding back because you're not satisfied with them?" Not that you'll get an immediate answer, but...)
Also, how weird is it that three out of four Slaughterhouse members can at least partially trace their poor major label experiences with Dr. Dre, the man who runs the label Shady is an affiliate of? Joe Budden may like to complain about his former boss Jay-Z, but Joell, Crooked, and Royce all got screwed over in some fashion by Andre Young (Crooked I probably the least so, given the time he was actually signed to Death Row Records, but still). And now they all help Dre make even more money. Who saw that coming? Raise your hands so that I can point out all of the liars out there.
1. GUN HARMONIZING (FEAT. CROOKED I)
Street Hop kicks off with the same track that initiated The Revival EP, annoying-ass “hook” and all (whoever told Ryan that it was a good idea for him to literally spit into the microphone, making ridiculous gunshot noises as though he were guest-starring on an episode of Spaced, needs to be smacked in the back of the head, and also, I realize I wrote almost the exact same comment the first time around, but fuck it), except this new and improved (relatively speaking) version features a guest verse from fellow Slaughterhouse butcher Crooked I. The actual verses sound alright, but, once again, the “hook” is fucking terrible. Not even Crooked I can elevate this kind of material. Moving on...
2. COUNT FOR NOTHING
The same song that appeared on the previous EP. However, I don't remember catching that reference to Mortal Kombat's Noob Saibot before, so that was kind of funny.
3. SOLDIER (FEAT. KID VISHIS & IYANA DEAN)
The first all-new song on Street Hop is hit-and-miss. The actual verses from Royce and his boy Kid Vishis (who sounds like the poor man's Sheek Louch) are alright, and the Frequency instrumental builds to a ridiculously catchy degree. However, the chorus is fucking awful: I have no idea what our host was aiming for when he greenlighted a hook that sounds like it was lifted from a piss-poor Destiny's Child tribute band, but whatever it was, he failed. Also, the gimmick played out at the beginning of each verse, where both Ryan and his guest begin their stanzas but then quickly re-do them, is annoying as hell, especially since you, the listener, are given the impression that they're making mistakes that should have been left on the cutting-room floor. Groan.
4. SOMETHING 2 RIDE 2 (FEAT. PHONTE)
I can't be the only person out there that honestly could give a fuck whether Phonte (formerly of North Carolina-based group Little Brother) ever worked with DJ Premier, but it happened anyway. The first of three Primo productions on Street Hop actually does sound like something to ride to (in fact, it's a little too on the nose, but that could just be me), with our host delivering three boastful verses as only he can. Phonte is actually wasted on a chorus that could have been easily been handled by absolutely anyone else, up to and including an Auto-Tuned Speak 'N Spell and/or a singing piranha with asthma. But anyway.
5. DINNERTIME (FEAT. BUSTA RHYMES)
The combination of Ryan and Busta Rhymes is as natural as peanut butter and lawn gnomes; Busta even refers to our host by his full proper Christian name at the very beginning, which is indicative of the fact that he had no goddamn clude who Royce was before arriving at the studio, and the words fall off of Trevor's tongue like awkward anchors into a shallow sea. But “Dinnertime” is notable for something other than it being an uncomfortable first date: Royce goes in over the catchy Quincy Tones instrumental, while Busta Rhymes sounds pretty fucking bad. Since one of Busta's special moves is acclimating to whatever instrumental he's provided, his poor performance on here was shocking. Maybe it was an off day, or maybe his blood sugar was just low: he does mention that everyone around him looks like hamburgers and/or frankfurters. Anywho...
6. FAR AWAY
Starts off kind of goofy, as Royce starts singing a love song for the ladies (who probably wouldn't be listening to Street Hop in the first place, let's be real here), catches himself, and then begins the real song, all over the same Emile beat that isn't bad, but would have actually fit better for the love rap. Ryan's abuse of Auto-Tune is slightly charming but entirely unnecessary: if anything, his hook dates this track terribly. And its short running time only allows Royce to squeeze in two verses, both of which don't sound quite up to the standard of his best, or even his average, work. Sigh.
7. THE WARRIORS (FEAT. SLAUGHTERHOUSE)
The same track as featured on the previous EP.
8. ...A BRIEF INTERMISSION (SKIT)
9. NEW MONEY
Starts off with an Ad-Rock vocal sample (from the Beastie Boys classic “The New Style”) and then repeats a sound bite from said sample all throughout the hook in the most annoying way possible. StreetRunner's beat is energetic, but Ryan isn't the man for it: his attempts at clever rhymes are overruled by the sheer volume of the instrumental, making this entire track sound like the “New Money” that he's trying to avoid associating with. Or something. This sucked regardless.
10. SHAKE THIS
The centerpiece of Street Hop occurs, appropriately enough, at the halfway mark. Over a powerful Primo beat (one that alternates between loud and soft, depending on how aggressive Ryan sounds), our host described his life, shaking his demons and insecurities, and having to deal with the consequences of his actions. Royce sounds fucking reinvigorated, justifying how it is that he's still in our chosen genre when everyone else had counted him out long ago. This is probably going to be the best song on Street Hop (even with the last bar of the second verse, which could be interpreted as misplaced homophobia but is really just a quick way for Ryan to detail his fear of his then-current situation, although, sure, he could have taken it a different way), and Primo's beat doesn't fail him by an inch. A mini-masterpiece. No, seriously.
11. GANGSTA (FEAT. TRICK TRICK)
Having Motor City stalwart Trick Trick bookend Ryan's verses on this track was a goofy idea, especially as he doesn't even contribute a rhyme, but you know what? I enjoyed how goofy “Gangsta” was. It isn't as though Royce recorded this song with his tongue placed firmly within his cheek or anything, but his verses are pretty funny (“If you a rapper I'ma dis your ass / Then get mad at you for getting mad at me” - that line explains away almost all of today's rap beefs), and I'm pretty sure he even included an allusion to both Kanye West's “Stronger” and Daft Punk's “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, so a round of applause for that. The Raf Moses beat sounded pretty good, even with the corny vocal sample repeating the title, a vocal sample I found myself looking forward to hearing more and more as the track wore on. Huh.
12. MINE IN THIZ (FEAT. MR. PORTER)
If radio ever wanted to play a Royce da 5'9” song that wasn't Bad Meets Evil's horrible “Lighters”, they could do a lot worse than this catchy Mr. Porter production (over which the rapper formerly known as D-12's Kon Artis also provides a contagious hook), which features three (well, really two-and-a-half) silly Ryan verses full of shit-talking and praise for his genitalia, which I just realized makes “Mine In Thiz” sound like every other Royce song, at least on paper. This is a pretty good one, though, if one can look past the attempted club-readiness of it all.
13. STREET HOP 2010
The final holdover from the EP.
14. THING FOR YOUR GIRLFRIEND (FEAT. K-YOUNG)
Wastes away the first forty-five seconds of the track on a bizarrely unfunny skit that only remotely ties into the song...and then wastes another minute and twenty-five seconds on guest crooner K-Young's performance before Ryan sees fit to actually earn his paycheck by swooping in and stealing your girl for a quick roll in the proverbial hay. This is a rap album, after all, so sex raps and rhymes threatening to take your girlfriend are par for the course, but they're oftentimes done much more skillfully than this plodding shit (which doubles back to the theme of the skit at one point, which, contrary to popular belief, does not make the interlude retroactively relevant).
15. ON THE RUN
Ryan's storytelling rap is quite good, even though the skits that bookend the actual music are overlong and, in the case of the intro, oddly specific. But our host is a natural at this, using the two verses allotted to fill the void that he feels after fleeing a murder scene. The ending is left ambiguous purposefully, and Royce caps the song with a moral that actually makes sense, which makes this song a winner. It then leads directly into...
...this next track, which is purportedly a chronicle of the events that led to Ryan running to the motel in the first place. He kind-of touched on this during “On The Run”, but it's laid out more explicitly, if abstractly, on “Murder”: this tale can be interpreted as a metaphoric warning aimed at all other rappers who go into Detroit and disrespect the city. (Trick Trick would be proud.) Ryan twists audience expectations, though, as “Murder” isn't a straight homicide tale: there's also an underlying current of paranoia and dread in Royce's voice, as he believes (correctly) that his boy is setting him up. Which makes the ending to “On The Run” much less ambiguous, by the way. The song then ends with our host walking into the motel from the previous track. A terrific one-two punch from a natural storyteller who really should do this kind of thing more often: playing around with the timeline only causes the tale to seem that much more compelling.
17. BAD BOY (FEAT. JUNGLE ROCK JR.)
Since Ryan keeps bragging about his association with Puff Daddy throughout Street Hop, I was half-expecting “Bad Boy” to be an homage-slash-commentary on his new BFF's record label. Which this song actually is, if and only if you pretend Royce is Shyne and guest crooner Jungle Rock Jr. is Barrington Levy. That was not intended to be a fair comparison, by the way: this song is awful. Clearly Ryan got sick and tired of being respected in this here rap game and decided that adopting a faux-Jamaician accent would be the quickest and most efficient way to kill off his own career. And you know what? He was right.
18. PART OF ME
Ryan adapts his storytelling flow into a wannabe love rap told from the perspective of all parties involved. Interesting as a curiosity piece, but the execution lacks the energy needed to keep the audience hooked to the narrative. I will give the man credit for completing subverting the meaning of the opening bars for the surprise ending, though: at least someone's trying to be clever.
19. HOOD LOVE (FEAT. BUN B & JOELL ORTIZ)
The worst of the three Primo beats on Street Hop does feature the most talented guest stars of the three, so that's something. Ryan and Bun B spit just as well as two people who have already used DJ Premier's instrumentals to do their bidding would, and Ryan's Slaughterhouse partner Joell Ortiz closes things out in a relatively uninteresting fashion (to be fair, he doesn't receive nearly the same amount of screen time as his cohorts on here). What a weird way to end an album.
The deluxe version of Street Hop includes the following additional tracks.
20. I'M FRESH (FEAT. MR. PORTER)
Sounds like old-school hip hop and new-school rap fought it out in the streets in the middle of the summer and vomited from dehydration, the expectorants mixing together to form “I'm Fresh”. And somehow that last sentence is intended to be a mild compliment: Royce rides the Mr. Porter beat and soars over the fenced that represent hip hop's barriers, all while Porter lays down so many samples that this track probably would have cost over seventy bazillion dollars to clear if someone were paying closer attention.
21. IT'S ALL ABOUT (FEAT. GRAFH)
The Ski Beatz, um, beat was fairly bland, and the participants fall right in line with the blandness, as neither Ryan nor guest star Grafh stir up enough emotion to make anybody stand up and take notice. Royce's hook was also annoying, specifically the stutter effect that made me want to shut off the goddamn album. Our host comes in with a good-natured jab at Slaughterhouse coworker Crooked I, though: I had completely forgotten about the tattoo fiasco. So at least that was funny. But the rest of this song can easily get skipped.
Wikipedia is a bit confusing, in that it lists a third bonus track on the iTunes deluxe edition of Street Hop, even though iTunes itself has no such record of this appearing on their version of the album. In the interest of being thorough, I tracked down the next (and final) song and wrote about it. Would you like to read more?
22. MY OWN PLANET (FEAT. BIG SEAN)
Ryan snagging a Big Sean guest cameo before the dude blew the fuck up and appeared on everyone else's projects should make our host seem psychic or something, but in reality Sean hails from Motown just like our host, so the pairing isn't all that farfetched. Would this same collaboration happen today, though? Probably not. Especially not over this boring-ass Kon Artis beat. However, the song itself isn't all bad: Big Sean doesn't embarrass himself, and Royce's two verses are actually pretty good (although a bit goofy, the line “I'm on Saturn when you don't matter” (italics mine) sounds pretty cool). And with that, we're (finally) done.
THE LAST WORD: Although overstuffed with more than its fair share of filler, Street Hop is the first solo project since Death Is Certain to actually showcase Royce da 5'9”'s talent (I'm not counting that Bad Meets Evil project from 2011, although that also went a long way toward proving that he was still a force to be reckoned with). Over nineteen tracks (or twenty-one if you sprung for the deluxe edition), Ryan's shit-talking, vague threats, concise observations, and references to his dick are at once exhilarating and exhausting, relying on the various instrumentals to propel them forward, a tactic that only works about a third of the time (although the beats help propel his storytelling on "On The Run" and "Murder", which counts for something). Aside from the obligatory appearances from various Slaughterhouse members, most of the cameos on Street Hop are uninspired (even the ones from Royce's own merry band of weed carriers) and should have been fine-tuned before Ryan and DJ Premier allowed this to finally see the light of day. Speaking of Primo, he easily turns in the most entertaining tracks of the project: one shudders to think how this might have sounded had it been fully produced by Primo as originally rumored. Street Hop isn't deserving of its manufacturer's suggested retail price in full, but if you come across it for cheap, you should pick up a copy. I wouldn't bother with any of the bonus tracks, though: they were left off of the proper album because none of them really fit. If you're strapped for time, though, you can snag “Shake This” off of iTunes and keep it moving, I guess.
There's some more on Royce to be found by clicking here.