This album is too special to me for it to pass by and not get some sort of special attention.
Royce opens up Book of Ryan on an optimistic note, glad to have even woke up he expresses in the Intro that he will no longer surround himself with negative people and his sense of gratitude segues nicely into Woke wherein Royce expresses a new ability to see the world clearly as it truly is. The song wraps up with an emphasis of the importance of a person's character rather than their appearance. This is our first taste of Royce's rapping on this album and he comes in very punchy over a simple but hard beat from KeY Wayne.
From there the pace is slowed down again with Parallel. Royce sets up the album as a look mental health struggles and the triumph over adversity. To say the project then takes an aggressive turn with Caterpillar is to understate it's ferocity. It starts calmly enough with Epikh Pro & S1's beat and we are treated to Gil Scott-Heron's famous "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" speech. From there it all kicks off. The flow on this song is itself confrontational even when separated from the violent and abrasive lyricism. We're being told that while what we're currently seeing in the rap game may be a beautiful and widely accepted butterfly none of it could have existed without the hard, ugly work of the caterpillar. The analogy is reminiscent of a George Carlin joke;
“The caterpillar does all the work, but the butterfly gets all the credit”
For me this is still the best song on the album if only because we have two absolute legends killing it in every conceivable manner and we're once again reminded that say what you want about Revival, Eminem is very firmly in the conversation for the GOAT.
An all time best song between the Bad Meets Evil duo was always going to be difficult to follow and so I appreciate dialling the mood down with Godspeed which effectively serves as a freestyle. We get plenty of the usual braggadocio as Royce spits over the Mr. Porter track about how hard he's worked to get everything that he has now.
Throughout the album the sprinkling of foley work does so much to flesh out each story or narrative and we're treated to a small example as Dumb comes in with another Epikh Pro & S1 beat and a more casual rapping style from Royce as he basically takes down the music industry. New Shady Records signee, Boogie, is the second rapper to feature on Book of Ryan and his presence is noteworthy as we bare witness to a respected legend in the game pointing out the corruption amongst the labels and managers with whom most artists have to work.
Once again a time out is called on the fire as Who Are You gives us our first inkling into where Ryan's mind appears to be in regard to his own addictions and their relation to his father's problems. A Q&A with his Dad is cut short as he then assumes the role of the answerer. His son reveals that Royce's addiction has kept him at a distance for so long that his son doesn't have a true grasp of who his Dad is.
Father and son relationships are troubled at the best of times but in Cocoaine Royce takes a commonly discussed issue within Hip Hop (drug addiction) and uses it to elevate his Dad rather than bring him down. Royce recognises how much strength it took for his Dad to go to rehab and get clean, and how a lot of that strength would have come from his love for his family. It's a beautiful look at what could only have been an incredibly difficult part of his life.
In Life Is Fair we're treated to even more insight into Ryan's childhood and he details how, from a young age, he was forced to recognise that life isn't fair but occasionally there are small highlights scattered amongst the crap. It's the brevity and sweetness of the song which plays so well after the emotionally complex Cocaine.
I hesitate to call Boblo Boat a dip in this masterpiece as it's far from a bad song and I know that a lot of people love it. However, on a song about the Detroit Boblo Boats I just don't see how J. Cole fits. The connection is clear in so much as they detail their youthful hijinks, but while Royce effortlessly flows along the old-timey beat I just felt as though J. Cole's singing and rapping were lacklustre.
This is when we get Legendary and Mr. Porter's beat absolutely kills it. Royce just spews forth with a bunch of ways in which he'll go down as legendary basically racing through each reason before coming to a slower, contemplative finale.
With Pusha T, Jadakiss, and Fabolous Summer On Lock is the track heaviest in features and all involved give first class performances. Royce once again places himself in opposition to many other rappers out there and knows himself to be one of the greats. Pusha T's hooks on DAYTONA were pretty stand out in a genre filled with mediocre choruses and he brought the same quality to this project. You then have a killer verse from Jadakiss who maintains the basic sentiment of "we the ones that they talking 'bout" but brings his reliable harder edge. Then we get Fabolous with some witty word play before the anthem closes out with the chorus.
As aforementioned the deployment of foley work throughout the album is on point (perhaps none better than in the upcoming Protecting Ryan interlude), and Amazing is some of my favourite in it's use to set up a vivid visual of Royce returning to the store from his childhood with his own children.
Once again we're witness to Royce's ability to talk melodically and deliver a monologue but within the pocket of another fantastic beat from our guys Epikh Pro and S1.
This is a return to the old neighbourhood for Royce with two of his old addresses actually explicitly mentioned. This is a truly celebratory song - having been through so much since being little Ryan Montgomery, most of it not good, he is returning during a better stage of his life and happily reminisces on various events and parts of the area. Mélanie Rutherford plays the role of a lady who also grew up around the way and is evidently joyous to see 5'9" return after his success.
After three tracks that were more joyous in tone Royce brings it back down in Outside with an introspective rap about what it is that scares him. He ruminates on what he has been like as a parent and comes to the realisation that what most scares him is the idea of seeing his son follow in his and his father's footsteps with his own struggle with addiction.
By no means would one have got to this point in Royce's discography believing that his childhood was one of happy times and celebration, but Power manages to be an even darker look at the abuse he and his family suffered during the holiday period. The name refers to the "power" that he was ultimately given by surviving these challenging times. Here, and in the some of the preceding songs, I am consistently impressed by Royce's ability to not only forgive his father, but actually appreciate what was done for him. This is story telling at it's finest and is the moment at which I realised this album was really was something special.
Protecting Ryan is a skit which could have easily been an incredible animated short. The use of sound here brings the tale to life and the story itself serves to give much needed context to what went wrong in the relationship between Ryan and his older brother, Greg.
The topic of suicide is not new to Hip Hop; Logic's "1-800-273-8255", Joyner Lucas's "I'm Sorry", Eminem's "Castle", to name just a few more recent songs. It's a recurring theme in the genre, even Biggie had "Suicidal Thoughts". Strong Friend is one of the better executed additions to this growing list but also, crucially, doesn't seem out of place on this album. What's so important about this song is that rather than play along with the narrative that suicide is a cowardly act it reveals that sometimes those that appear the strongest, shouldering the world's burden with apparent ease, may well be struggling the most. It's not an aspect of suicide that has been much discussed and Royce manages it with all of the lyricism and passion that he brings to every track on the project.
Anything / Everything strikes me as a song about the extremes in America. It is those with the most that seem to deeply crave more; they want everything and would do anything to have it. This is starkly contrasted with those who have practically nothing and are left without much of a hope of attaining anything.
Between Stay Woke and "Woke" the two songs effectively serve to bookend the album. Now that Royce is "woke", living a healthier life and seeing more clearly, he raps about the struggle to maintain that awareness but his intention to do so. Throughout the track there are frequent nods to Royce's exceptional talent, none more so than in the outro wherein Ashley Sorrell sings about those who are still sleeping on him.
It was an interesting decision to close out with First of the Month rather than Stay Woke but the joy of it seems a fitting send off for what is basically an auto-biography in the form of a rap album. Royce acknowledges that he now has "the money, the power, [and] respect". In my humble opinion, finishing with a reference to Bone Thugs is only ever going to be a win.
There we have it. One of my favourite albums of the past few years, and hopefully (if you've read this far) you have a feel for why exactly that is.
Bonus review of Caterpillar Remix - Logic was never going to outshine Eminem but he did a decent job. I quite liked how we went off on a rant about those who he simply can't please on the topic of his race and I'm glad it was said. People just wanna hate.