Royce Da 5’9” and DJ Premier are cut from the same cloth, frequent collaborators from overlapping generations of rap culture, the former inspired heavily by the latter. They are both proof of rap staying power; Premier is practically a symbol and Royce is a savvy veteran who has managed a lengthy career without settling. The two stumbled upon the works of producer and composer Adrian Younge separately — primarily his work with Ghostface Killah on last year’s terrific Twelve Reasons To Die —and upon suggestion from Royce, set out to make a full collaborative project, one that both Royce and fans have been after for quite some time now. The three artists have a shared vision, and together they seek constantly to reinterpret the soul and funk that Hip Hop was built on.
Adrian Younge fills in the margins for PRhyme, which is both the name of the duo and the name of their first project as a unit, but the palpable chemistry between the pairing at its epicenter is what’s prominently featured. This is no frills Hip Hop with a blue-collar, workmans approach to craftsmanship from two artists of the same ilk with the same devout belief in rap conservativism. Younge provides the ingredients and Preemo constructs labyrinths wherein Royce works. The Detroit rapper is the type of emcee born to spit over vintage Premier loops — an artisan with a level delivery who unpacks tightly constructed raps in the pockets in boom bap beat breaks. When given his space, like on the eerie, tempo-turning “Wishin,” it’s easy for him to exercise his dexterity and he is at his best when rattling off as many bars as he can fit in a 4/4 time signature in a given phrase (“I walk by a so called tough guy, watch him tuck his chain in / No snatching though, watch what you put my fucking name in / Kind of like an armless actor playing an action role / I’m out on the west copping like Axel Foley, ask the police / But at least I’m active though”). Comparatively, slow-flowing guest Common serves as an unofficial gauge of his words-per-minute. DJ Premier had a hand in creating the Rap standard that Royce so heavily abides by, and he knows how to replicate it. The two are a match made in Rap purist heaven making Rap that is an endless nod to the Golden Age.
Part of the magic of PRhyme lies in its murky depths, which come courtesy of Younge’s soulful live compositions sampled by Premier in a rare deviation from his typical exploratory tactics. Premier has always had a penchant for sampling whatever he stumbles upon, but the refined selection of this endeavour, despite mildly restricting the great producer, makes for a cohesive listening experience. While there is no diversity in source material there is in sound, and Younge’s wide-ranging works make for a dark, gritty soundbed. The sounds pop crisply beneath evenly measured flows, both from the album’s leading man and a host of very capable guests, creating harmony.
The rich soul sound of the ‘60s and ‘70s is repurposed by Premier with deft chops to create a stage that allows Royce Da 5’9” to be the lyrical exhibitionist he is. He balances cadences and routinely flips schemes from the opening tip on the title track: “Me and Chris we veterans, but when youngins call you vet / You start to feel like Hardaway with that UTEP, two step / They come in the league like A.I with they new look and that crossover / move, and they make that old shit seem useless”. On “Microphone Preem,” he showcases his signature charm and matches it with insane assonance like, “But all jokes aside like I ordered fries / I’m liable to store somebody’s corpse in the closet, I’m organized / Before police was interrogatin’, I was livin’ the story of my life / And Morgan Freeman was narratin’.” Royce is a student of rap with a natural gift, and when partnered with one of the greatest producers of all-time he is in rare form, even by his lofty standards.
Rap history plays a major role in the framing of PRhyme, shaping its sound and its texture — to quote Royce, the project was made to “make Hip Hop history” — and this intrinsic “throwback” quality makes it simultaneously endearing and sometimes remarkably out of touch. On the lead single, “Courtesy,” the Detroit emcee is both incredibly self-aware (“I used to rap about death; now I’m only concerned to live / I value relationships — still, I keep it competitive / Chances are if you see throw the match it ain’t to lose the fight it’s to walk away from a burning bridge”) and incredibly disconnected (he condemns radio success as a breach of uncompromising Rap ethics like he wasn’t a part of “Lighters” or DJ Premier didn’t make a song with Limp Bizkit) all at once. “You Should Know” is a lecture on what should be consider substandard. There are features from third eye rappers Jay Electronica and Ab-Soul. The whole thing is a monument to Rap’s idealized past. At times it reads like an act of aggression, like Rap classism. Both Royce and Premier know what they are and they must play to their strengths. But even then, at times, PRhyme is limited by its closed-mindedness.
That isn’t to say that PRhyme isn’t a marvel that begets nostalgia and recalls some of the best qualities of classic Rap music. When most in sync, PRhyme is a hive mind conjuring up projections of the past, a well oiled machine producing a brand of ‘90s Rap revivalism that never sounds dated. When Royce Da 5’9” raps alongside ScHoolboy Q and Killer Mike (who stands on all the same Rap principles as Royce, but with a more inclusive attitude) on the brilliant “Underground Kings” he is comfortably right at home. He raps with swagger: “They call me The Benz Owner / I put Lorenzos on it / Then go and pick your chick up in it and friend zone her.” There are punches set up perfectly, many of which unfold over several bars, some of which — like a gun bar from “U Looz” that references The Expendables cast — would transition perfectly as filler in a battle. “To Me, To You” peppers schemes with bits of double-time. The entire project is a testament to great, knotty Rap, even when dismissive of the modern rap climate. Together with one of the architects of Hip Hop, one of the most gifted technicians ever curates an album that doesn’t compromise. PRhyme can be closed off to the Rap of today, but their rendition of the Rap of yesteryear will always have a place in any era.