February 3, 2018

My Gut Reaction: Royce da 5'9" - Success Is Certain (August 9, 2011)

2011 was a big year for Ryan Montgomery. The Detroit artist who records under the moniker Royce da 5’9” even though “Royce” has nothing to do with his real name found himself realigned with his former friend, colleague, and rap partner Marshall “Eminem” Mathers when it was announced that Slaughterhouse, the four-man lyrical clinic made up of Crooked I, Joell Ortiz, DJ Akademiks’ BFF Joe Budden, and Ryan himself, were officially signed to his label, Shady Records. This was followed up with a Slaughterhouse EP the very next month, one that was, interestingly enough, not distributed by Shady (plans had been well under way for that release prior to their major label signing). That June, Ryan and Marshall reformed their duo Bad Meets Evil for their very first project (everything that had released previously, way back when both were babies within the industry, were just loose singles), The Hell EP, which introduced Ryan to the mainstream, debuting at number one on the Billboard charts and earning our subject a golden plaque for units sold. Things were looking up for Ryan Montgomery.

Two months later, Ryan’s fifth solo album, Success Is Certain, was released to far less fanfare.

Success Is Certain was intended to be a spiritual, if not a direct, sequel to Royce’s sophomore effort, Death Is Certain, showcasing the other side of the coin that mirrored how he felt about his position within our chosen genre at the time of recording. It was released by Gracie Productions, notable by how much it isn’t Shady Records: Eminem only saw fit to sign the quartet as a crew, and didn’t offer individual deals, not unlike what he gave to current Interweb champions Westside Gunn and his brother Conway, who have a joint venture that will likely expire before they ever release anything, since right now Marshall’s only looking out for Marshall, especially after the reception to his latest offering Revival, which I really don’t want to have to listen to, but I acknowledge that writing about the rest of the motherfucker’s back catalog has me kind of backed into a corner.


Anyway, Royce treated Success Is Certain as he did all of his other solo projects, securing the best beats he could from his friends and collaborators, such as The Alchemist, Mr. Porter, and, most promisingly, DJ Premier, whom he would form the duo PRhyme in three years (PRhyme 2 is also apparently hitting virtual shelves this year, and as I actually liked their first effort, I’m looking forward to it). The guest appearances are limited in scope purposefully, as Success Is Certain is the Ryan Montgomery Hour, our host feeling the need to prove to the listener that he was still able to hold it down all by his lonely even though his most recent success has been as a part of a crew (see: Slaughterhouse, Bad Meets Evil, hell, even PRhyme).

I’ve referred to Ryan as one of my favorite rappers in the past, and I’ve gone out of my way to review the Slaughterhouse projects and PRhyme fairly close to their respective release dates, but I haven’t done the same for the man’s solo catalog. I have no real explanation: for whatever reason, I’ve just never felt the need to listen to Success Is Certain until today. Maybe seven years ago I was fully aware that I would be fighting to gain readers back after a lengthy hiatus, and subconsciously saved this album just for the occasion.

Nah, that sounds fucking stupid.

I have mixed feelings about the album opener “Legendary”. Musically, it’s alright, if incredibly repetitive: the rock-tinged production (credited to Eminem, Luis Resto, and the duo then known as The Futuristiks, making their second appearance in as many days on the blog, weirdly) is punctuated with live drum work from Blink-182 and the Transplants’ Travis Barker, hip hop’s second favorite drummer behind Questlove of The Roots, which gives the track more life than it would have claimed had Marshall stuck with a machine. The music doesn’t really fit Ryan’s performance, though: it’s more loud than laudatory, forcing Royce to work triple shifts in order to prove that he is a “Legendary” emcee. However, the bars do come at a furious clip, our host rhyming at his standard pace, beat be damned, and at least he sounded good, even when he’s lightly crooning on the hook. Overall, though, this introductory track doesn’t really work.

Although Success Is Certain was released two months after Bad Meets Evil’s The Hell EP, in no way is “Writer’s Block” a means of cross-promotion: if anything, this song is a throwback to Ryan’s first major-label single, “Rock City”, where guest star Eminem also just performed the hook, much to the listener’s dismay. I will give it to Marshall: he realizes this isn’t his show, and ensures the spotlight remains on Ryan, who does not disappoint, spitting two fire verses and half of a goofy chorus that play around with the idea of “Writer’s Block” before proving otherwise. I could have done without the screams of “Psych!”, as though our host and his guest were still in junior high, but whatever. The instrumental, credited to Streetrunner and Sarom, sounds more like the type of beat most rappers would use to kickstart an album (it’s okay otherwise), so maybe the sequencing on Success Is Certain is going to be a bit off. Also, Marshall drops some references to EPMD and 3rd Bass at the very end, so at least he hasn’t forgotten his roots, even though his fans today will have no idea what he’s even talking about.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: as a song, “Merry Go Round” is bad. The beat, from Nottz, approximates the music from a haunted jack-in-the-box, and is annoying as shit. The lyrics, though, are at least worth reading the once: our host uses “Merry Go Round” to dissect why he’s so bad at maintaining friendships (spoiler alert: it’s a combination of hubris and alcoholism), a tale that becomes fascinating when he touches on his fractured relationship with Dr. Dre, how his manager inadvertently got him dropped from 2001 (he holds one writing credit on the album but was originally planned to contribute a lot more), and how the culmination of all of this led to Em and Royce ultimately burying the hatchet. The jump to Slaughterhouse is nonsensical, but is a part of his story, after all, so it is what it is. (Note: curiously, the mp3 and iTunes editions of Success Is Certain replaces “Merry Go Round” with “I’m Fresh”, a bonus track from Ryan’s last full-length album Street Hop. An interesting choice, I guess?)

With the exception of “Merry Go Round”, every beat on Success Is Certain so far sounds like Royce was trying to announce his return to the rap world, a reintroduction disrupted by the Bad Meets Evil EP two months prior, a savvy move on our host’s part that actually scored him both radio and television airwaves. I guess those residual checks from the label were a pittance, though, because Ryan spends the bulk of the Streetrunner-produced “Where My Money” demanding proper compensation for his work. The strange part is, Royce da 5’9” doesn’t make his case from a lyrical standpoint: his verses on here are boring as shit, and the energetic instrumental just can’t change that. Oh well.

Corny as shit. Royce positions himself as a doctor of sorts, charged with saving the life of our chosen genre, which, for the purposes of “ER”, is dying, but he largely abandons that pretense (save for the shitty chorus) to talk his shit again. Doesn’t work this time, though. Guest star Kid Vishis (Ryan’s brother) sounds okay-ish, but the Streetrunner instrumental they’re both saddled with is just too much, man. Next!

Success Is Certain is the furthest thing from a cohesive album as I’ve heard in a while. Ryan’s bars, for the most part, aren’t at fault: if anything, his excitement for the reunion of Bad Meets Evil has encouraged him to pick up some of those fancy-as-fuck pens from Staples. But musically, this project is all over the place, and on “On The Boulevard”, he’s fallen into phony Dr. Dre-esque territory. It isn’t a bad instrumental by most standards: it’s just difficult to fit this onto an album where the only real direction given was, “Remember Death Is Certain? That, except it sucks.” Interestingly, our host gives producer Nottz the first verse, while Adonis sings a hook that would have been performed by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine had Success Is Certain been released by Shady/Aftermath. Overall, the track is alright, if not very memorable, but it was a strange time to introduce a more serious song into the proceedings.

Eminem may never bother asking his own goddamn deejay for beats, but his associates make no such mistake, as Royce da 5’9” reunites with The Alchemist for “I Ain’t Coming Down”, the first track on Success Is Certain I can say I enjoyed throughout. Alan’s instrumental abandons his typical cold, apathetic gangsta cinescapes in favor of something approximating whimsy and hope, while our host frankly discusses some of his past beefs, how he was at fault, and how he’s moving forward and upward (hence the song’s title). I even liked Ryan’s singing during the hook. This shit was nice, is all.

I was a little worried at the beginning of “Security”, as the “vocal sample from a soul song” trope has been done to death, but that gave way to what is the best Mr. Porter instrumental I’ve ever heard the man do. And it’s fitting that the producer also known as Kon Artis handles the instrumental here, as “Security” is Royce da 5’9’s tribute to Porter’s D-12 bandmate Proof. Ryan’s three verses are sober, clear, and powerful, as he describes his interactions with the late Proof and his mindstate when attending the man’s funeral. His singing on the hook doesn’t really lead anywhere, but overall I found myself liking “Security” quite a bit.

I count myself as a fan of the collaborations between Royce da 5’9” and DJ Premier. Their early team-up “Boom” I still listen to today; same with the slightly more recent “Hip Hop”. As I mentioned above, I enjoyed their PRhyme project quite a bit (the deluxe version was a reach, but still) and look forward to their planned follow-up. So I was shocked to discover the Premier-produced “Second Place” on Success Is Certain, as it had completely passed me by. How does that even happen? (Aside from shifting priorities on my part, obviously.) All in all, “Second Place” isn’t the pair’s best work. However, it does sound like ground zero for PRhyme, albeit with an incomplete set of blueprints, and Royce didn’t sound bad, although the casual homophobia was a bit much in 2011 and completely unnecessary seven years later.

I’ve written about “My Own Planet” before, back when it was a mysterious bonus track on the deluxe edition of Royce’s last solo project, Street Hop, except today’s edition swaps out fellow Detroit rapper Big Sean for our host’s Slaughterhouse companion Joe Budden, the only other member of that crew that appears on Success Is Certain. The instrumental and the hook, both provided by Mr. Porter, remain the same, as does my overall assessment: the track is okay, if a bit goofy. However, Budden shouldn’t have tried to muscle his way onto the track if he wasn’t willing to play ball: Sean at the very least tried to mirror Ryan’s lyrics on the original take, providing much-needed cohesion and the illusion that the two actually worked together. Budden simply spits a random verse, apropos to nothing, that he probably emailed our host two weeks before this project was mastered. Joe Budden’s lost many times before (and since), but coming in second to Big Sean? What world is this?

Ryan chooses to end Success Is Certain with a pretty terrible song. Mr. Porter’s instrumental is okay, if a bit busy, but our host contributes bars that land like anvils onto an already-crushed coyote, some of which are hateful for absolutely no reason. He’s trying to spin a positive tale here somehow, but the final product is so awful that it won’t connect with any listener.

The deluxe edition of Success Is Certain contains the following bonus tracks.

Ryan only sounds moderately better on the Kon Artis-produced “Rock That”, which aims for old-school flavor mixed with a lyrical clinic, but doesn’t hit the mark. Our host and his brother spit their rhymes with a combination of flair and excitement, with Royce taking control more often than not, but the track itself left me feeling hollow, as though I wasn’t even sure if what I had just listened to was a real song. Which is never the response one wants to hear about their music, so.

Hip hop heads who were chomping at the bit to hear Eminem over a DJ Premier beat will need to immediately temper their expectations, as this remix to the earlier “Writer’s Block” merely lifts the vocals from the original version, so it’s debatable whether or not Marshall Mathers even knows Preemo exists. (There’s always PRhyme 2, maybe?) Aside from one minor quibble, though, Premier turns in the definitive take on the material: Ryan’s shit-talking just seems to fit better over boom-bap, each drum hit providing emphasis to his bars. My problem is with how the beat never changes until the very end, where Marshall is rambling: a newer listener will get lost in the part where Ryan’s verse ends and his half of the hook begins, as everything sounds that seamless (this is a bad thing, folks). And yet I still enjoyed this much more than Streetrunner and Sarom’s production.

THE LAST WORD: Success Is Certain was met with heaps of critical acclaim upon its initial release in 2011. Maybe it would have worked better for me seven years ago, or perhaps my taste (and ears) have evolved well beyond this plane of existence, because I just didn’t hear anything super-special on here. Ryan has secured his position as one of my favorite rappers of all time, and if I ever get that indie label started and he’s interested, I would absolutely sign the dude. But while there are stretches of lyrical wizardry at play on here, and even his singing voice isn’t terrible (as it is designated for hooks only as needed), this didn’t click for me because a lot of the beats are whatever.  It’s a damn shame, as Success Is Certain contains many of Ryan’s most personal rhymes to date (a handful of tracks act as straight-up autobiographies), but the music was largely forgettable. The run from “I Ain’t Coming Down” to “Second Place” is a keeper, and deserves to be listened to by anyone who has made it this far in the write-up, but as for the rest of it, feel free to put Success Is Certain on hold until you feel the need to play something in the background while you clean your kitchen.


You’re certain to find more Royce by clicking here. Yeah, I’m deeply ashamed of that pun, too.


  1. I absolutely love security. One of the most succinct and hitting tributes I've ever heard in a rap song. RIP Proof

  2. I listened to this once when it come out 7 years ago and that was it, so I must have had a pretty similar reaction to you.

    I'm super excited for new PRhyme. Even though I doubt the project will hold up over 18 tracks, I'm sure at least a handful will be good. And the good news about 18 tracks-- that increases the likelihood for an awesome features (Nas, Kendrick, or Danny Brown would be great).

    1. It also increases the chance of album filler, so my fears won't be assuaged until I hear the end result. Also, I sincerely hope they don't get a guest feature from Danny Brown, as that would sound terrible (and I usually like the guy).

      You know who would be a great out-of-left-field cameo, though? Sauce Money. Think about that.

    2. I can't remember the last time I saw Sauce Money on a track. If anyone could dig him up though, it would be Primo.

      And I think Danny is a strong and versatile enough rapper to accomodate different kinds of production and rap styles. But yeah, that could backfire.

      Also, really random, but Sauce Money made me think of late 90s and early 2000s NY rap: have you ever listened to Nature's debut album For All Season? It's actually quite good (I was shocked too, after hearing him on The Firm album), and he has some great production on there (Ski produces the best song). I think you might like some of the tracks on there.

    3. personally I would LOVE to hear Freddie Gibbs on it, although I highly doubt it. He can flow over a pretty wide variety of beats so would be interesting to hear him on Preemo. He needs the spot for a come back anyway

    4. Sauce Money remains one of the most underrated MCs this game has ever seen. But what if he worked with a Brother Ali?

  3. Sort of related, but I wasn't really feeling Era, until Royce came on. It would just be hard for him to sound bad on such a minimal beat, his voice is just so damn magnetic. As for the song overall, decent single, but I really hope it's nothing more than that in the relative context of the album, as it pales in comparison to pretty much all of Prhyme imo