There's a certain pure demand for a guy like Royce 5'9" in this game. It just took the Detroit MC a little while to find his lane.
Words: Thomas Golianopoulos
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
It's been weeks since Royce 5’9”'s most recent therapy session and his doctor is concerned. “He wants to talk to meeeeeee,” the 42-year-old Detroit rapper sings with delight when he notices that his therapist is FaceTiming him. Royce corrects his posture and sits on the edge of the couch inside his midtown Manhattan hotel room before answering the call.
“How you been, man?” the doctor says in a vague accent—somewhat Canadian, maybe a little Persian—before he comments on Royce’s outfit. “Look at you all snazzy.” Royce wears a maroon suit with a waffle-knit cream-colored turtleneck and camouflage sneakers. A three-fingered ring completes the look. He has a valid excuse for missing appointments. “I released an album so I’ve been traveling around trying to raise awareness about it,” Royce says over FaceTime, referring to his eighth studio album, The Allegory, which was released in late February. “It’s called Promotor tour.” He assures his therapist he will be back on the couch soon enough, most likely next week when he returns home from Miami. “He’s probably worried about me,” Royce adds after hanging up. “I haven’t been able to answer the phone for him for the last couple of weeks. I don’t think he goes on the internet. I think he has no idea what’s going on right now.”
Interrupting an interview to schedule a therapist appointment is very on brand for Royce 5’9” circa 2020, something akin to Snoop Dogg smoking a blunt in front of a reporter. Over two decades into his career, Royce is now associated with mature themes such as therapy, sobriety and self-improvement. It’s been a long road.
“It feels great, man,” he shares with more than a hint of satisfaction. “I just like it when my name is associated with the things that I genuinely stand for because there were plenty of times when my name was associated with things that didn’t sum me up as a person.”
Royce 5’9”’s name was once associated with things like alcoholism, incarceration (he did a year-long bid starting in 2006 for DUI) and wasted potential. An Eminem cosign couldn’t lift his big-budget debut album, 2002’s Rock City, from the bargain bin. He then lashed out, beefing with former friends like the late rapper Proof of D12. On more than one occasion, the conflict spilled into the streets. “Man, I been to war,” he discloses. “Most of my life, you’d be hard-pressed to catch me without a gun. My motto was, ‘I rather be caught with it than without it.’”
That was the old Royce. Royce will still smack down another rapper though. He just goes about it differently nowadays. Take his recent jab at former Shady Records colleague Yelawolf, for example. “Yelawolf, this is your first and your last pass,” Royce raps on “Overcomer,” the second single off The Allegory. “I ain’t gonna put it on blast, your punk-ass know what this about.” Though Royce refuses to reveal what happened with his former labelmate, in January, DJ Vlad reported that [Yelawolf, who is White, and his White DJ allegedly both used the N-word around one of Royce’s protégés.
Royce’s responses, both on “Overcomer” and in interviews, have been measured with a trace of menace. It’s the Scorsese brimming with regret in The Irishman compared to the gleeful violence the filmmaker depicted in Goodfellas. “I thought about how I wanted to deal with it,” Royce says. "I came up with I just want to address Yelawolf on a song and keep it pushing. I’m not going to promote negativity or do anything vindictive or do something to ruin him. It’s just not how I’m cut. I’m not going to allow someone else to turn me into something I’m not. I love the way it feels when it’s peace. I have extremely bad, violent days to compare it to. I don’t think Yelawolf does.”
The situation with Yelawolf deflected attention from the fact that Royce is in the midst of a career renaissance, one that stems, in part, from his sobriety. Royce struggled to write raps upon getting sober in September 2012. The rhythm was odd. He leaned on crutches—rapping about rapping while discounting storytelling and introspection—and struggled with writer’s block. He then learned the importance of patience. “You can’t be a control freak when it comes to creativity,” he affirms, sounding like a self-help guru. “You have to be the vessel.”
Slowly, his confidence grew, and starting with PRhyme, his 2014 collaboration with DJ Premier, Royce emerged a fully-formed MC confident in his art. “He’s all about taking risks,” the legendary producer says. “There were a lot of PRhyme records where I was like, ‘Nah, man, I’m not feeling them.’ He was like, ‘Nah, we can go left because we are who we are. We already have the bangers and the boom-bap joints.”
The artistic growth continued with his 2016 solo album Layers, PRhyme 2 and 2018’s Book of Ryan, the latter of which featured the most personal raps of his career. He struggled with motivation afterwards. “I remember talking to [longtime manager] Kino [Childrey], like I don’t know if I even have anything more to say,” he remembers. “It was like, I’m cool, maybe I’m ready to move on to whatever the next passion is because there is always a next passion.” The next passion though led him back to his first passion.
Around this time, Royce decided he’d learn how to produce beats. He soon became infatuated, tackling it with the same fervor he once had for shooting hoops or getting wasted. He purchased an MPC Studio off the advice of DJ Premier. The producer Denaun Porter, formerly known as Kon Artis of D12, then gifted Royce a clone of his laptop featuring his percussion sounds dating back to 2013. Royce searched for samples on YouTube. He learned how to program. Soon he was making beats and the production inspired him to write new raps. And one day he realized he had enough songs for an album. Royce produced all 22 tracks on The Allegory, an album that generated some of the strongest reviews of Royce’s career.
Still, Denaun Porter, a close collaborator who operates next to Royce in Detroit’s Heaven Studios, thinks Nickel’s best work is ahead of him. “The one thing we do in the studio is go to the next step of learning self,” Porter says. “The more you learn about yourself, the more you have to talk about. Eminem has not made his greatest record yet. Neither has Royce. If they write that well now, who are they going to be once they have completely mastered their trauma and the problems they went through?”
Though he’s ruminated on it since completing The Allegory last fall, Royce is unsure about his next move. “I’m gonna play it by vibe. It’s whatever feels right,” he expresses, while pacing in his room at the Dream hotel in midtown Manhattan, clutching a handful of yogurt-covered pretzels. “There are so many things that can be done.” He’s superstitious about announcing upcoming projects. Hence, the reticence when it comes to a potential PRhyme 3 or a Bad Meets Evil album with longtime friend Eminem; for the record, Royce is the Bad to Em’s Evil. His frequent collaborators, however, are a bit more forthcoming. When asked about a potential PRhyme 3, DJ Premier says, “We already started, but we’re not really talking about it.”
Bad Meets Evil is a trickier proposition. “I would love to,” Royce answers about a follow-up to the duo’s 2011 EP Hell: The Sequel. Ultimately, though, it’s Eminem’s decision. “That’s one of those things that it’s whenever he feels ready… I can never mention Bad Meets Evil to him in a way where it’s like, ‘Come on man, let’s do this!’ There are too many ways that can be taken. I kind of look at it like he graduated to a level where he can call when it’s going to happen. We move on his accord when it comes to that.”
Hell: The Sequel executive producer Denaun Porter, however, is more optimistic. “It will happen for sure,” he says. “It’s a staple now. It’s like a brand. You can’t just desert a brand like that. You just have to make sure it’s at the right time and I think it’s the perfect time now.”
Royce is taking it in stride until the next project materializes. In the meantime though, he’s contemplating learning an instrument or maybe even attending college to study music theory. There’s so much to do each and every day: Spend time with his kids. Watch documentaries. Go to therapy. Eat at fancy restaurants with his wife. Look for houses on the Zillow app until late at night and then have long phone calls with friends that last until sunrise. “The best conversations—the most deep ones—are at five in the morning,” he says. And when there’s nothing else happening, he will practice, practice making beats and practice writing raps.
“Those are all the things,” he says, “that make me the most happy.”
Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2020 issue including our Future cover story, in which he speaks on his Life Is Good album, Lil Yachty discusses his new album, Lil Boat 3, and the respect he deserves, Van Jones talks about his love for hip-hop, Show & Prove interviews with Jack Harlow, Key Glock and City Morgue, YBN Cordae in What's Happenin, Rapsody talks about getting her flowers in an exclusive interview; G Herbo speaks on building up his community like Jay-Z and Meek Mill, plus there's a brewing, new hip-hop scene in New York and more.
See Photos From Royce 5'9"'s XXL Magazine Spring 2020 Interview