Published Apr 15, 2016After more than two decades in the rap game, Detroit's Royce 5'9" (aka Royce Da 5'9") has often been celebrated for his guest verses and collaborations, while his solo efforts are met with tepid reception. It's a narrative that Royce sets out to rewrite on his new LP, Layers, as he makes clear over the skittering percussion and downcast keys of opening track "Tabernacle," where he spits: "Recovering alcoholic, I grew up on 9 Mile / I'm not a gangster / Just an MC who made a name with his rhyme style." That combination of confidence and candid vulnerability is one of Royce's many unique strengths on this sturdy album.
An even greater feat throughout these 17 tracks, however, is his astounding ability to make words malleable for unique rhyming combos. On "Pray," Royce spits "Your daughter ain't an heiress / Hope she's taken care of," over ominous organ notes and a wailing choir (produced by fellow Detroit rap alum Mr. Porter, who also shares executive producer credit with the MC). On "Hard," Royce somehow rhymes "I was born with my lungs collapsin'" and "I walked right up to the drug dealer in my class and asked him."
"Hard," by contrast, is stifled by the MC's incessant genre tropes, especially when he lazily boasts about "fucking the baddest bitches around" and "getting money." Midway track "Shine," suffers from the same issues, thanks to its lines about, once again, getting money and a chorus detailing his efforts to shine a light "on these hoes," undercutting Royce's impressive singing on the chorus and the track's intriguing, xylophone-infused instrumental (helmed by Nottz, one of the most criminally underrated producers in the game). While those tracks are mixed bags, "Flesh" is a flop through and through, especially when Royce bawdily declares: "Ain't nothing like side pussy on my dick," without even bothering to find a rhyme for the line.
Despite these missteps, Layers is by no means a misogynist mess. On "Misses," he calls his girl "a keeper" before bragging that she never has to "lift a finger or spend a dime," in his company. The subsequent lewd verses, about a fraught affair, might still be off-putting for some listeners, but the track has a more nuanced narrative than Layers' outright fumbles do. The title track is particularly impressive, as Royce shows off his beatboxing prowess before comparing that to his feats "between the sheets to seek the g-spot." It's a cleverly entertaining sex couplet that showcases his deft lyricism without overtly objectifying the ladies. The song also features rap heavyweights Rick Ross and Pusha T, who spit solid verses that will leave hip-hop heads elated. Better still is Royce's recruitment of up and coming songstresses like Tiara on "Quiet," and Melanie Rutherford on "Hello." The latter performer spits and sings with both venom and flair to spare, rivalling even Royce himself.
If Royce continues to channel his love for the ladies in this more enlightened fashion, his future LPs will be classic. Layers is a great step forward, a glowing promise on his next album, his ambitions will be fully realized. (Bad Half Entertainment)