This final album review of 2014 is devoted to a collaborative project that I was convinced would never actually happen. The pairing of Detroit smart-ass Royce da 5'9" and legendary producer DJ Premier has paid off multiple times before, with various album tracks and the occasional single, but a full-length album featuring Ryan Montgomery's bars over Primo's boom-bap? Could our chosen genre contain themselves for one goddamned moment so that we can realize the importance of what is happening here?
That last sentence is probably one of the reactions Royce and Primo were hoping for when PRhyme was announced earlier this year, and let's be honest, that's pretty much what they got. It's Royce and Premier. Come on. Even I gave a shit, and I haven't cared about much in the way of new hip hop albums this year.
Primo and Royce made their partnership official by forming a duo, called PRhyme, and released their self-titled debut on December 9, where it was destined to be lost in the sea of rap releases, since they were competing directly with Ghostface Killah, Termanology, and that week's winner, J. Cole. But if my Twitter feed is any indication, PRhyme had an impact on a very specific type of hip hop fan: rap nerds, like myself, who appreciate well-thought-out lyrical wordplay and beats that fucking bang.
PRhyme makes for the second duo Royce has found himself a part of, the other being his Bad Meets Evil partnership alongside fellow Detroit native (and label boss) Eminem. (Obviously, he's also a part of the barbershop quartet Slaughterhouse, along with Crooked I, Joell Ortiz, and Joe Budden, but that isn't a duo, is it?) Teaming up with Primo, though, was a tiny bit controversial at first, since DJ Premier was the producer of a different legendary duo, Gang Starr, along with the late Guru. Ryan found himself playing defense to ensure that hip hop heads didn't actually think he was stupid enough to try to replace Guru. Which was a really foolish thing for people to complain about in the first place: it's not like Primo re-formed Gang Starr with Royce at the helm or anything. PRhyme is entirely separate. But hey, some people are fucking stupid.
PRhyme is a short album consisting of only nine tracks and a handful of guest features from acts outside of Royce's typical trajectory (and also Slaughterhouse, because duh). But Premier realized that he needed to do something a little bit different to make this project stand out in his crowded discography, so he challenged himself to use only samples drawn from different Adrian Younge projects. Younge specializes in soulful works with influences coming from many different sources, such as blaxploitation films (see: his work on the soundtrack for the funny-as-shit film Black Dynamite) and Italian horror flicks (see: Ghostface Killah's Twelve Reasons To Die, which Younge produced in its entirety), so his relatively small back catalog still offers Primo many different directions to take this album's sound.
At least Royce and Primo understand that rap album intros aren't necessarily, um, necessary. The self-imposed restriction to using cribbing from only the music of Adrian Younge informs this title track, a surprisingly subdued affair with an interesting beat, if minimal intrusion from Primo, while Nickel Nine uses his bars to...well, he talks about being in his "PRhyme", which was to be expected, but he then burns an awful lot of his time in misogynist mode. Which I realize is nothing new: any guy who spends as much time as Royce does talking about his dick is bound to talk shit about how he uses it. But he sounds especially bitter on this title track, almost as though he has spent too much time reading through Eminem's notebooks. So this song was okay, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. (Again, this is hip hop, and misogyny is, sadly, par for the course, as we've all discussed and debated before, but I think we can all agree that it would have made much more sense for Ryan to merely talk shit and promote both himself and DJ Premier, as opposed to what he actually ends up doing, on this title track, right?)
2. DAT SOUND GOOD (FEAT. AB-SOUL & MAC MILLER)
Not the first two rappers I would consider if trying to fill the guest spots on PRhyme myself, but I'm sure Ryan and Primo had their reasons for choosing Black Hippy's Ab-Soul and MTV2's Mac Miller to spit alongside our host over a pretty good, not-flashy-at-all instrumental. (Primo's self-imposed restriction appears to be leading to more focused beats. I can't be mad at that.) Royce sounds alright as usual (but not quite as angry: I guess he bought himself something nice with his Bad Meets Evil royalties), and Mac Miller doesn't embarrass himself, but the surprise for me was Ab-Soul, a guy I don't usually give a fuck about, and his excellent performance...that he kind of screws up with his last line, which doesn't rhyme with anything, is delivered with so much apathy, and isn't as deep as he wants it to sound. But overall, "Dat Sound Good" sounded good. Thank fuck, because that title could have easily become the joke of the project.
3. U LOOZ
Short enough to have been the intro (and originally earmarked as such, according to early interviews with our two hosts from around the time PRhyme was announced), but who am I to criticize how albums are sequenced? Oh yeah; I'm Max. Anyway, "U Looz", as short as it is, bangs in a matter-of-fact manner, as Ryan spits a single verse full of the skillful bullshit he's best known for. Hell, his verse is even pretty goddamn funny. Primo's instrumental is a welcome oasis in the desert better known as all of those copycat sample-on-sample-on-sample loops the man has produced over the past decade: it's good to hear the man actually trying again. Primo's bars, which are real and actually do happen, are more of a quick gag than anything else, as they happen right after Ryan pays his respects to Guru (R.I.P.). Not bad, though.
4. YOU SHOULD KNOW (FEAT. DWELE)
Subtle, low-key, and focused: who knew that was the formula DJ Premier should have been following all this time? "You Should Know" is pleasant enough to listen to with your grandmother (although she'll have to look past all of Royce's comments about his dick) and to bang in your car (your vehicle probably won't be quite as offended by all of the phallic talk). The verses are all on point, and fellow Detroit resident Dwele's crooned chorus, made up only of the titular phrase and sometimes an ad-libbed "Yeah", is pretty good: it fits the mood perfectly. But the beat is the real winner tonight.
The first single, which didn't really do anything for me when it first dropped. Ryan is as boastful as ever, and Primo's organ-heavy instrumental certainly isn't bad (although it veers from the boom-bap you two were most certainly hoping for). But the whole of "Courtesy" is less than the sum of its parts. Royce tries to boost his energy level toward the end of his second verse, but it's too little, too late: "Courtesy" is the audio equivalent of a shrug from two artists who don't believe that they have to prove shit to you, and the lack of effort and passion shines through. Sigh.
6. WISHIN' (FEAT. COMMON)
And we're back, folks. Primo's nice-as-fuck instrumental during the intro, altered throughout "Wishin'", first appeared in the video for "U Looz": adding Royce lyrics only brings the goddamn house down. Primo fucks with the beat just enough to keep things fascinating, while Royce alludes to previous DJ Premier-produced favorites at the beginning of his verses. Ryan's shit-talking reaches its zenith on "Wishin'", which would have ended up being the best track on PRhyme even without the guest verse from Hell On Wheels' Common, who fucking kills it on his cameo. Lonnie's performance is so good that it made me remember that he dropped an album of his own earlier this year that I've all but ignored entirely. This shit knocks.
7. TO ME, TO YOU (FEAT. JAY ELECTRONICA)
Jay Electronica's album may never come out (that's almost guaranteed at this point, but then again, we finally got a D'Angelo follow-up, so...), but the man himself still manages to build up enough of a buzz to keep a roof over his head. His verse on "To Me, To You" isn't "it would have been considered great had Kendrick Lamar not overshadowed everyone and their goddamned mother on 'Control'"-levels of good, but he does well with it. This is the Ryan and Primo show, though, and our hosts deliver on their promise to entertain the listeners who are willing to look at this project in a different way than they might have, had the duo dropped it shortly after their first collaboration, 1999's "Boom". Age and (slight) maturity complements this duo well.
8. UNDERGROUND KINGS (FEAT. SCHOOLBOY Q & KILLER MIKE)
It was a goddamn brilliant move for Ryan to bring in all of these random surprise guests. Ab-Soul, Jay Electronica, and now ScHoolboy Q and Killer Mike (currently riding a high of critical praise thanks to Run The Jewels 2) must have all been thrilled to spit over a DJ Premier instrumental, especially one that is such a non-Primo-esque banger such as the one found on "Underground Kings", which probably should have thrown in a Bun B cameo for good measure, but whatever. Quincy turns in a decent effort, although the beat is much more demanding that what he usually chooses to spit over, but both Ryan and Michael deliver hot verses, Mike in particular proving that he's still capable of ripping shit even if El-P didn't produce the track.
9. MICROPHONE PREEM (FEAT. SLAUGHTERHOUSE)
The second Primo/Slaughterhouse track to drop this fall (the other being the ridiculously-titled but still pretty good "Y'all Ready Know", which makes no grammatical sense and should have been called "You Already Know", but whatever, from the recent Shady XV compilation, which I have no plans on writing about so you should probably get your thoughts out in the comments below), and the slightly more successful of the two, thanks to the conceit that "Microphone Preem" (I realize even DJ Premier refers to himself as "Preemo", but I personally hate that spelling and will stick with "Primo", thank you very much) is actually a direct sequel to their self-titled debut's Alchemist-produced "Microphone", itself a goddamn banger to this today. Crooked I, Joell Ortiz, and the U-God of the crew, Joe Budden, join both halves of PRhyme to unleash bars of fury to help close out this project, with each artist helping to jog the listener's memory of the song's predecessor during their respective hooks. The beat is subdued if you ignore the banging old-school drums, and Primo keeps his deejaying in check (read: no random sound bites taken from other songs scratched in all over the beat, just in the designated spots). A nice way to leave things.
About a week after dropping the album, Royce and Primo debuted a video for a b-side, "PRhyme Time", that they shot in conjunction with the Fila brand. It's alright, but the curiosity factor (why would they choose to shoot a video for something that they left on the cutting-room floor?) ultimately trumps the song's quality. Still, more Royce punchlines are always appreciated, so while I can't recommend that you track it down, it's still alright enough.
THE LAST WORD: As long as you two aren't expecting an album full of "Boom" or "Shake That" and their ilk, PRhyme will entertain the shit out of you, as it is one of the best hip hop releases of the year (a really shitty year, but still). DJ Premier's challenge to himself pays off in a huge way, as Adrian Younge's source material draws more focus and empathy out of the man, as his instrumentals explore boom-bap avenues that he hasn't really attempted ever since Gang Starr moved away from jazz. Royce da 5'9" also showcases a level of maturity and self-awareness that he's never really revealed before, although his bars are still full of the hilarious boasts and dick jokes that made him a blogger favorite in the first place. They bring the best out of one another, as all of the best duos tend to, and I, for one, am glad that PRhyme exists in the first goddamn place: some of the best Royce solo songs have been produced by Primo, and I'm happy to report that their first collaborative project doesn't disappoint. Not every track is perfect (I could stand to ditch a couple of them outright), and the mileage on some of the random (and inspired) guest stars will vary depending on how much you like, say, Mac Miller, but overall, I enjoyed this short album and hope for a sequel. Ryan and Primo aren't as incendiary as El-P and Killer Mike are in Run The Jewels, but they don't have to be: they travel in their own lane within our chosen genre. And it's nice to see Primo getting back to producing entire albums, with that Bumpy Knuckles project (well, he produced the majority of that, anyway) and now this. Still, I can't help but wonder what PRhyme would have sounded like had Nas taken Royce's place. Can you imagine Nas on "Wishin'"? Come the fuck on. Speaking of which, what's the spread on Primo and Esco finally connecting for a full-length? Hey, we just got a brand-new D'Angelo album after fourteen years of promises: I'm now convinced anything can happen. Except for Detox. That's never coming out. Sorry.
There's more Royce da 5'9" to be found here, and as for DJ Premier, this link will assist.