Royce Da 5'9" is a legend in the game. There's no way around it. For decades, the Detroit emcee has been evolving as an artist, whether through his own impeccable solo catalog, his work alongside Eminem as Bad Meets Evil, or raising the bar for lyricists alongside his Slaughterhouse brothers. Now his eighth studio album The Allegory -- the first produced in its entirety by his own hand -- has secured him a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album. A major milestone that might have come earlier, had acclaimed projects like Layers or Book Of Ryan been submitted for contention.

As the ninth installment of our ongoing series HNHH Presents: 12 Days Of Christmas, I had the pleasure of catching up with Royce Da 5'9" from his control room in Heaven studios, the place he spends the majority of his time these days. It's the same place he learned how to produce, under the watchful eye of longtime friend and collaborator Denaun Porter -- not to mention a few clutch lessons from DJ Premier. It's the same place he recorded the entirety of The Allegory, an album that found him embracing the wisdom earned from a long and storied career.

It's clear that Royce's priorities have evolved. Maintaining the sanctity of hip-hop culture is among his primary passions, alongside his recently-launched mental health initiative. There's a willingness to impart knowledge to young artists who might not be in possession of the tools they might need to find lasting success. As he explains on his now Grammy-nominated Allegory, he wore the proverbial "rhinestone doo-rag" so those who followed wouldn't have to. The valuable lessons gleaned from life experience are shared with refreshing honesty. "One thing I learned about labels, is that if you don't know exactly what you are, and you can't express that to them in a way where they understand, then they'll try to tell you what they think you are," he explains. "When you get to that point, now you're in a bad spot."

For more gems from Royce, including his take on The Grammys, the love-hate relationship between artists and media, and taking the plunge into the infinite possibilities of production, be sure to check out a complete transcription of our conversation below.

This conversation has been edited for clarity -- look for the full interview on YouTube soon.

Day Nine: A Conversation with Royce Da 5'9"


HNHH: Hey, how you doing Royce?

Royce: Good. How are you feeling brother?

Feeling pretty good. Nice to finally meet you face to face. Are you at Heaven right now?

Yeah.

Cool. I recognize the throne.

Always up here, man. It's like the work never stops.

Yeah. We'll get to that. But first off, congratulations on the Grammy nom.

Thank you very much.

I know you've described it as surreal before, but has it settled in yet? What does it mean to you to get that recognition?

It's cool, man. It's still taking some getting used to. It’s doesn't feel like a thing yet, you know? Nothing's really changed aside from a bunch of people saying congratulations. I'm kind of used to being overlooked. So I'm kind of used to that. So it's a new thing for me to kind of get used to, but it's cool. It's like getting noticed by your peers. And being looked at for the work that you do. That means something to me in a different way from, like what something may sell or-- there's a lot of different layers to what you would call success or how you would look at success. And to kind of break down those kinds of barriers at this juncture in my career, and sort of do some of the things that I'm not supposed to be doing in the proverbial rulebook that's been created. I love to be able to just apply myself and kind of move the goalposts around how I want.

"I also loved to be forced to see things from a different perspective. You know, I've always been anti-Grammys, and 'Nah, man they not this and that,' but they my boys this year. I don't have any problem with the Grammys, because I'm nominated. So that tells me, I was making it about me. And then I'm looking at some of the artists that are complaining, and I'm like, 'y'all got the bullhorn all year.' You know? You guys are on your major label platforms, all we hear about is y’all and you get one little snub, and now you're crying about it. And it's making me look at them different. And I'm going, 'Oh, that was me.'"

I get a real kick out of that on some levels. So it's kind of a win in that regard already. And I also loved to be forced to see things from a different perspective. You know, I've always been anti-Grammys, and “Nah, man they not this and that,” but they my boys this year. I don't have any problem with the Grammys, because I'm nominated. So that tells me, I was making it about me. And then I'm looking at some of the artists that are complaining, and I'm like, “y'all got the bullhorn all year.” You know? You guys are on your major label platforms, all we hear about is y’all and you get one little snub, and now you're crying about it. And it's making me look at them different. And I'm going, “Oh, that was me.” So I got a whole new kind of outlook on it. Yeah, I was doing that.

It's interesting you say that too. Because I mean, I'm sure every rap fan out there has at least a few stories of feeling...you know, a little slighted by the Grammys, and their treatment of hip-hop in general. I was writing about the Grammys a couple of years ago, I forget what was the reason behind it, but it occurred to me that Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was the only hip hop album to ever take home the Album of the Year. So to me, it's an interesting conversation, right? Because on one hand, they really did step up with the rap nominations. They really put a spotlight on the lyricists, and a lot of great, great projects. But I'm wondering, do you think that the Grammys will ever recognize a hip-hop album as the Album of the Year and make that statement?

I think of course -- when it makes sense to them. That's kind of like how things go and I think we need to look at that for what it is. The Grammys is a machine, so why try to change the way in which the machine operates? That's not the problem. The problem that we're having is the people who lend credibility to the machine not understanding that we're lending credibility to that machine. If we're not having that conversation, then we're just complaining. So it's all about how much of ourselves talking do we want to actually hear. Because we've done nothing to make the Grammys have to, you know, make a decision to change some things. This makes the Grammys bigger. It's to the point now, they can't please everybody now. They're that big, and there's a level of prestige and esteem that comes along with that. We create and we lend them that level. They're there now, and now they know they're there, so it's like you're dealing with the monster now. You can't tame the monster, you created the monster!

So why would the Grammys cater to you? Then that they wouldn't have that same level of esteem. Somebody has to be unhappy walking away, that's a win for the Grammys. I get that, I see that. For a machine of that magnitude to be looking at me, Freddie, Nas, Jay Elec, that's a step forward. That's like, okay, we're gonna take a deeper look into this culture. And I think that's a cool step for them. I think just the climate in general, everything is going on in the world, and just the pandemic, and everybody kind of being forced to be hyper-focused on their computer screen. This is the time to be able to differentiate cool from numbers, energy from numbers, you know -- culture from commercial. This is a perfect time for that. I think that they're just realizing the difference between the two and how important culture is.

I agree with that. I think it is a step in the right direction, for sure. And it's cool too, all the albums picked were very lyrical projects, lots of great writing,  great penmanship. So to see that get recognized, I think it's just cool. I think you could have probably secured a nomination for couple albums already but--

None of those albums got submitted, man. I've just found out.

Oh, really?

Yeah, you know, I didn't know that this album got submitted. So when I found out I was nominated, Joyner Lucas called me like, and I was getting 50 DMS and text messages all coming in, just popping in. I was like what's going on? And I answered the phone for Joyner, he was the first who I answered the phone for. I'm like, yo, what's the fuck is going on? He's like "Yo, congratulations!" I’m like on what? I thought he was talking about something with Marshall's album. I had no idea what he's talking about. So that was pretty cool.

That must’ve been a pretty surprising reaction.

It's surprising-- it's cool to have a pleasant surprise. With the vibe that's in the air, we literally don't know what we're going to get surprised with every single day when we look at our computers. So it's like, when somebody calls my phone excited, I gotta hear a little bit more to know even what I'm dealing with. Like, are you yelling, crying, laughing? What's going on in good old America today? You know what I mean? These surprises are good.

How do you not get desensitized? It's difficult.

It is. It’s kind of being placed in front of you in a way that says, you know, get over it. It's like move on. Just move on. It's just a life. No problem. That's a tough pill to swallow.

How have you been just on a more grounded note? Like how have you been dealing with the pandemic and some of these traumas that have been occurring throughout the year in general, you know, on mental health level?

I've been making my adjustments. I've been making my adjustments getting to know myself better and better. I'm learning that I've been realizing that I've been pretty much making adjustments my whole life. I mean the whole pandemic thing is just even more major adjustments and the older I become, the more I start to care about certain things that I may not have paid attention to before. Adjusting to that. Everything triggers me. My understanding of the importance of me unapologetically and very intentionally loving my people. Filling the void that is there. Back to that rule book we're talking about, it's taboo for us to love each other and support each other. We're much more comfortable talking about what's wrong with something.

I'm trying to make adjustments to things that weren't necessarily in my lexicon of things to say and do prior to. To me, that's growth on some level. As long as I can get better today than I was yesterday, then I feel alright. And if I can get some music done throughout the process, that's cool too. I just been dealing with it as it comes, and I'm realizing that it's a lot more going on up here than just music. The music is like a thing now where it's like I can give you to however you want it. It's all about how much fulfillment can I get out of giving it to you? And that's really where I'm at with it. And how can I help? How can I do my part? And it doesn't always end up being a sixteen or a song. Sometimes it's other things. I mean, so I'm just constantly thinking about that.

Royce Da 5'9"

Image via Artist

Yeah, for sure. It shows that you're able to find creative inspiration through difficult times. And I think that's been something that's been a driving factor in your music for a while now. I was wondering, was it hard to follow up an album that was so personal, like Book of Ryan-- were you conscious of following that up and where you'd go from there? Was it a challenge?

It wasn't that challenging, not as challenging as I thought it would be. Because Book of Ryan was designed to not be able to be topped. That was the goal for Book of Ryan. I feel like every artist should have that one self-defining album at some point in their career. And whatever that album is, that should be your magnum opus, that should be an album that can't be topped because it's you, it's who you are. But also, I learned after you've finished that kind of album, it's just a new beginning. You can express many things in many ways. It's just all about what you're drawn to. And, you know, what’s coming out at the time, and who you are at a time, and how you can fill some sort of void in the marketplace. And how can you move things forward?

"It wasn't that challenging, not as challenging as I thought it would be. Because 'Book Of Ryan' was designed to not be able to be topped. That was the goal for 'Book of Ryan.' I feel like every artist should have that one self-defining album at some point in their career. And whatever that album is, that should be your magnum opus, that should be an album that can't be topped because it's you, it's who you are. But also, I learned after you've finished that kind of album, it's just a new beginning."

And I found that in production, the process of learning how to make beats. The more I got into The Allegory, the more I realized that, it's gonna be hard to compare the two because we're talking about two different parts of my heart. I'm connected to them in two different ways. And it was fun to be able to express things that aren't necessarily my ideologies. It was fun to be able to be a vessel in some regards, and it was fun to be able to combine a whole lot of different layers of myself. It was fun to be able to bring cross mixtape Royce here and there on Allegory. It's fun to make the skits. It was fun to just be free. Book Of Ryan wasn't free. Book Of Ryan was nitpick Central.

I can imagine. Even coming off Layers. I can see how you went from Layers to Book Of Ryan to Allegory. I can see some thematic anchors throughout all those projects. It's really fascinating to look back on your writing. And I don't know, there's a lot. There's a lot there. You're a great writer, great lyricist. So I want to give those flowers, you know. I think that's important, I really do. On the beatmaking level, not too long ago, I was actually talking with Havoc, and he was talking about production and how he thinks artists should try their hand at producing their own music. And I think it's cool that you took that step. It unlocked this new way of expression. So is there any way you could tell me about how you came to discover that sound and why that style of production in particular really spoke to you?

I don't know. I think it was just, The Allegory was-- I started off, my only goal in my mind was just to learn how to make beats. I feel like I've been producing for a minute. Just my role within Slaughterhouse...everything, producing, every sense of the word. I was that kind of involved in all the projects, and only thing I wasn't doing in the production process was actually making the beats. But everything else that goes along with that, I've been doing that for a minute. So, this was just a good way for me to kind of like, close the gap. It was like, how would it be if I'm actually the one, laying the drums, picking the drums, picking the sample, chopping the sample, learning the equipment, learning the hardware, learning the software. I've been around for so many years, and I kind of felt like, eventually, I'll learn this stuff-- it’s a good time to start learning it.

Engineering myself, you know, cutting my own vocals, mixing will be next. I just hit a point where I wanted to start developing new skills. That's all it was, it wasn't anything deeper than that. So that turned into practice. And I think that kind of separates somebody like me from the average run-of-the-mill person who decides that they want to try their hand at something. If I'm drawn to it, and I really, really want to get good at it, I won't stop practicing. And I don't mind practice and I like practicing. And I don't mind making very, very bad beats. I've made very bad beat after beat after beat after beat after beat until they finally started to sound a little bit better. And that was the light that I needed to see at the end of the tunnel. And I stayed at it and I stayed at it and I stayed at it. And from the outside looking in, it kind of looked like I learned how to make beats really fast. But I put my 10,000 hours a long time ago because I would not leave this keyboard and the computer. I would not stop going down rabbit holes. I would not stop searching for shit to sample. I would not stop collecting records. I would not stop making drums I would not stop getting drums from people. I would not stop bugging Premier. I will not stop bugging all my producer friends.

And you know, eventually, it just turned into -- Wow, I like this beat that I just did. Wow, I just made another one. This one is good. I'll actually play this for people. It turned into that. And then one thing led to another and when I was finally able to start writing and rapping to em', you know, it turned into another day at the office.

Definitely. And it doesn't hurt that you have two fantastic producers in your circle, I'm thinking specifically of Primo and Denaun. Two great producers and I know you're close friends with both of them. And I was wondering, did they take on any sort of mentorship role when it came to the hands-on beat-making?

I'm not worthy. I'm not worthy, bro. Like Denaun was up here working in the B Room, he would come walking in every now and then like What's that? You just did that? And I'd be like yeah, you like this? Yeah! Really? And then like he would be able to tell me -- 'okay, you hear where it does this? Okay, that right there, people don't normally just do that. Like normally people-- it takes time to develop, the fact that you're naturally doing that'-- Once he started breaking things down and putting things into perspective, it helped me develop because I didn't know what I was listening to. Knowing what you're listening to is key. Once you unlock Pandora's box with that, then you start to realize that it's not about making the best beat in the world at all. It's actually about making the right beat, making the best beat for what you're doing.

There's no way I can come up with something that's going to sound better than what he can come up with in that B Room. But you can get the best producers in the world and pick the best beats from each of them and write your best raps on each beat. And that'll be the album that everybody says is 'not cohesive. It doesn't flow like Illmatic.' I mean, it's way more that goes into it than just the best, the best, the best, the best, the best. At some point you have to find, aesthetically, a vibe, and I think I learned that early so I just applied that to it.

And then it didn't hurt that Denaun loaded me up on a template in this program called Battery where he basically gave me thousands of drum sounds. Thousands. There's drums that I still haven't even heard yet. Imagine a bazooka with like thousands of rounds of bazooka missiles, bullets, bullet belts. I'm strapped with more corral than any new beatmaker. I have every and any drum sound you can think of. I have like, the top of the top of the top in terms of sound like-- he EQ'd everything. So it's like, I press a button and it sounds like a Dre drum. A lot of people don't have that luxury. But I earned it, because I can rap and he likes me. And then Premier got on FaceTime with me and kind of walked me through how to use MPC, so that was a luxury. And I think that's what it is about. It's about developing resources and actually using them.

Definitely. A strong network of people whose talents you respect. Knowing people's strengths in your circle. It’s a good look. And I mean, I'm loving your production. I remember you showcased a few beats on your Instagram hinting at a little bit of a Bad Meets Evil vibe, I was pretty into that.

I sent Marshall some stuff here. I always send him stuff. I mean, so my first placement I got was on his album. So that was a dope accomplishment. And I love when I can send him something and he gets excited, man, it makes me excited. It makes me want to work. Sometimes I need that, you know?

Oh, definitely. And it showcases some versatility too. Like the sounds that you were kind of working with on Music To Be Murdered By were pretty different than the ones on Allegory. So it showed that you're able to adapt to other artists. I mean, obviously, you're familiar with working with Eminem but did it open a new dynamic? Was it new territory?

So it's always a new dynamic, because you never know what he's gonna be on. It all depends on what headspace he’s in, you know? You can do so many things and like, whatever he chooses to do, he's going to be great at it. He's going to strive to put his best foot forward. The competition level of just what you have to put into it in order to be able to coexist from a competitive perspective is distressing. I mean, that's pretty much what my experience is like whenever I'm working with him. I'm a new producer, so having to-- producing his first single is stressful, because, like, it's on the same album as a Dr. Dre beat.

"It's always a new dynamic [with Eminem], because you never know what he's gonna be on. It all depends on what headspace he’s in, you know? You can do so many things and like, whatever he chooses to do, he's going to be great at it. He's going to strive to put his best foot forward. The competition level of just what you have to put into it in order to be able to coexist from a competitive perspective is distressing. I mean, that's pretty much what my experience is like whenever I'm working with him. I'm a new producer, so having to-- producing his first single is stressful, because, like, it's on the same album as a Dr. Dre beat."

So it's just a level of stress that's fun. And I'm up for that challenge. But it's definitely on a different mind frame. And then like, with those beasts that I gave him for that album, that was my first time working with somebody where when I come around, I have to find out where I fit, and occupy that space, and not go past that. You know? Because that's his ship. I'm just here to help. So I'm just here to do my part. Actually, I didn't even get summoned here to help. I'm just here as a friend. And I'm playing him stuff, and he's liking it. So like, now I got to just adapt to that.

Now that you've kind of unlocked this like new-- it's almost like a cheat code for production -- do you think it's going to be tough when you're working on something new to not produce the whole thing for yourself now? Or are you looking to maybe in the future, start outsourcing production again?

Yeah, I've been doing a little stuff here and there production-wise. I just go with where the vibe takes me. I have no problem at all doing a project where I do none of the beats, no problem at all. I don't know if my heart feels like I want to do another project where I only want to do the beats. I don't know if I want to do that again. I don't know. I'll just have to see where it takes me but I'm not drawn to that right now at this second at all. I miss rapping on Premier beats. I miss rapping over masterful beats. Beats that I feel like these are the best at what they do. Like I miss collaborating with those guys. You know me like, I have fun doing everything myself. I have fun putting all the weight on my shoulders. It was just a fun task to do and get it all out of my system but to approach it that way every time? Never.

Fair enough. Do you think on the note of like masterful production this year, do you feel there have been any producers that really stood out and caught your ear and you think deserve a little bit of recognition for everything they brought to the table?

I like Beat Butcha. He's really good, man. I like Daringer, that works with the Griselda guys. Madlib and Alchemist-- I like what they have been doing with the collaborative projects they've been doing. I mean, I'm sure there's more but I like a lot of people's beats man. And a lot of times I don't know who did it. Like, I like the fact that of course-- Hit-Boy. I like the fact that aside from Hit-Boy, there's not like an "it" person that everybody feels that they need to go to. I like that. I like the fact that a lot of movements are self-contained. They got like their own producers who you never heard of, but the beats are really dope. I love that. You know, I like Mike Zombie. I like T-Minus. You know, Khalil, Boi-1da. I like people who are just good. They're good at what they do. You know, I'm not much of a wave guy. These guys exist in any era, in any climate. No matter what's going on, they can exist, and they're gonna be good. I like that.

"I like Beat Butcha. He's really good, man. I like Daringer that works with the Griselda guys. Madlib and Alchemist-- I like what they have been doing with the collaborative projects they've been doing. I mean, I'm sure there's more but I like a lot of people's beats man. And a lot of times I don't know who did it. Like, I like the fact that of course-- Hit-Boy. I like the fact that aside from Hit-Boy, there's not like an "it" person that everybody feels that they need to go to. I like that. I like the fact that a lot of movements are self-contained. They got like their own producers who you never heard of, but the beats are really dope."

Royce Da 5'9"

Image via Artist

Yeah, for sure. I mean, it's about that time where the year is coming to an end. That means, at least on my end, that usually means the year-end lists, the verse of the year, the album of the year, song of the year. And I'm wondering, do you have any picks for the verse of the year, whether it's from your own personal catalog or someone else who you feel was like really, really killing it lyrically this year?

Yeah, I think I think Benny's had a few. Conway's had some real good ones. Nas had some good ones on the album. T.I has some really good ones on his album. Tobe Nwigwe. Always Black Thought. You know personally if I wasn't so humble, I could easily fill the top five slots just between LA Leakers and my album, you know. It's just whatever you want. Whatever you want. King Los is doing great things. Drake had a really good verse on No Ceilings.  On Lil Wayne's new No Ceilings joint, Drake's verse on that is crazy. I love that verse. So it’s some great verses.

I agree with that. Lyrically, this year has been very strong I think.

People are rapping, Freddie Gibbs-- people aren’t playing around. They're rapping, you know. I just think that the pandemic kind of brings that out of us. We don't have time to party right now. You know, I mean this is the time to hold the black mirror up to America and force us to look at ourselves. How do you feel about what you see? There's not as many artists trying to take you to a party to distract you from reality. I think there's a place for it, but I don't think that that should be the whole culture. I think the culture should have a balance. There should be responsibility weaved in and out of there. The culture has to understand our value and our influence and our reach and use it accordingly, and use it as a means to grow and treat it like something that needs to always be nurtured.

There's so many cycles being put in place that are to the detriment of the individuals as well as the culture that we can't stop from happening because we don't always control the narrative. So we have to take moments, take time out, and create moments, where we create cycles that offset those cycles. We unapologetically control the narrative of the culture and we treat the culture like it's ours and we want to keep it in good standings. If we don't take those steps, then we kind of just sitting around waiting for whatever. I just think it's something that needs to be well kept and manicured. Finely manicured. I think we're doing that right now.

Absolutely. The creation of timeless music, I think is very important. And the writing is a big part of that, you know-- there's a reason why people can look back on songs from the early 90s, 30 years ago, and still find value in them today. They still resonate today. That's something I've been thinking about a lot. If lyricism were to fall a bit by the wayside -- as it unfortunately has in the past, will the music that might not be so lyrical have a little trouble sticking around and withstanding the test of time? I don't know. I'm not sure.

I can answer that. The music that's not so lyrical, if it's not great, it's not gonna stand the test of time regardless. And I think hip-hop has grown to such a magnitude now that what's in the spotlight isn't necessarily what's best for the culture. It's a different agenda behind what's in the spotlight. So what's in the spotlight isn't necessarily what's most important. You know what I mean? So they'll always be something in the spotlight that's enjoyable, but it's not necessarily what speaks for the culture. It's just a layer. And right now, we're living in a world where you don't have to like anything. You don't have to listen to anything that you don't like. You literally can find the things that you like, and only focus on those and you don't have to be bothered.

"The music that's not so lyrical, if it's not great, it's not gonna stand the test of time regardless. And I think hip-hop has grown to such a magnitude now that what's in the spotlight isn't necessarily what's best for the culture. It's a different agenda behind what's in the spotlight. So what's in the spotlight isn't necessarily what's most important."

The whole theory of radio and all of that stuff, the spotlight this and that, and who's hot and who's not, who's on the charts and all of that. Nobody cares about any of that shit in a couple of years. How well did it age? You got some artists who aim to do that. And then you have some artists who aim to provide something for the moment in that moment for that spot. And it can be something that's not lyrical, but it's not going to last. It's not made to last.

Okay, fair enough. That makes sense to me. It's kind of like a snapshot, I guess. I wonder if the music of this time-- if there's going to be some patterns that emerge from like, the COVID era. Are there going to be certain sounds and themes and stuff that are picked up? Maybe patterns in the release schedules? Artists are really hustling releasing so much material now. It's crazy.

I think the actual music has taken a little bit of a backseat, because it's like, execution, presence, and intention is the kind of the caveat right now. You know, everybody's looking at everybody. You know, I'm looking at Kendrick right now. But I'm not necessarily so focused on what, how's the music going to be? I kind of trust that it's gonna be something that's going to shift the culture, because that's kind of what his job is. But I'm looking at him in admiration. How does he stay so quiet? And I know, he's gonna come out and be so loud. And like, it's cool that he does that, I like that he has that thing. I like the intention behind it. And I like the fact that he moves with a purpose. That's intriguing to me.

You know, and it's because he makes music so well, is what opened that door for me to view him that way. It started with the music. And I just think that because artists like Kendrick executed it so well, Cole, Drake, they execute so well. Now, fans can skip steps with everybody. So now you'd be hard-pressed to find somebody who doesn't have a presence outside of their music. We're just looking at each other right now. So, I don't know if there's a certain style of music that people are following. I think aesthetically, I think the artists who know what works for them and what they want to say, that's what will resonate the best. If it's a reflection of what's going on right now, and impacts in a way that makes people pay attention, if it exists in that way it will always matter.

"I think the actual music has taken a little bit of a backseat, because it's like, execution, presence, and intention is the kind of the caveat right now. You know, everybody's looking at everybody. You know, I'm looking at Kendrick right now. But I'm not necessarily so focused on what, how's the music going to be? I kind of trust that it's gonna be something that's going to shift the culture, because that's kind of what his job is. But I'm looking at him in admiration. How does he stay so quiet? And I know, he's gonna come out and be so loud."

For sure. It's like what you said about narratives too. At this point, it's so hard to keep track of it because you could release something and then it goes on social media and then people on social media will have their opinions, then critics will have their opinions and then fellow artists will have their opinions. Sometimes it feels like people tend to define themselves a little bit more by what they dislike than what they actually like. And so it becomes difficult. I don't know, it's kind of overwhelming at this point, releasing music in this climate. There are so many different voices. How do you reconcile that when you're sitting on the edge of dropping an album?

I don't reconcile it. I just look at it like it's part of the fun. Like the fans, that's part of their process. You know sometimes, the juicy side of it, or engaging the lie versus the truth? It’s more fun for me at that moment. I've been at work all day. I'm having fun, you know, conspiracy theory-ing somebody’s album. I'm having fun typing my opinion. You have to give them that. That's what they're here for. As a fan, that's their moment. You know there's certain things that happened in our moments in our fanfare that they'll never get to experience. They'll never know what it's like to pull up the artwork out the sleeve and be able to open it all up and read who did what, and everything's tangibly in your hand, and you had to wait for it to come out and nothing leaked. You had to go to the record store to get it, that's a whole different experience. Now, you know, the narrative is everything. Everywhere is the barbershop, and that's fun.

Sometimes some people's albums are more fun to talk about than they are to listen to, and there's something to be said about that, too. So, we just got to make sure that we're not reconciling everything. Some shit just is what it is. If you want to read what the critics have to say, and then go listen to what the pundits have to say, then go to the barbershop and hear what they have to say. And you want to listen to what everybody has to say, you gotta take what comes with that. And if it puts you at a place where you're reconciling it, if there's something deeper there, you might want to seek therapy. With so much going on, and how messed up everything is, you just can't look at it that for validation. You have to find some point of fulfillment and go to that point. And then give in and let them have it. Once you give it to them, they're not gonna give it back. It's yours, do whatever you want with it. Talk about however you like, you can't validate me. It's done. It's done. A win is a win. I finished. My fulfillment comes in completion. You know -- completing albums.

There you go. Do you ever look back on your whole discography and reflect on it as a portrait of yourself as an artist in a way?

Yeah. I mean, I think all of our lives are that. You should be able to reflect on your whole life, and just be able to notice the points where it was time to turn the corner, it was time to grow a little bit, reinvent. You should be able to locate and identify points of stagnation, long points of stagnation due to anything. All kinds of stuff. So I can listen to this thing sonically and just say, wow, I was in that place. Okay, I know why I did that. I know why I did that. Oh, what was I saying right there? Like you can hear the growth. I think it's cool to be able to hear the growth. I think it's cool to be able to listen and say oh, I caught on to that. I learned that because I literally grew up in music. You know, I went around Dr. Dre when I was like 19. You know, I was fresh out of the open mic. I didn't know how to make albums. I didn't know who I was creatively. I had to figure all that out through making mistakes. My discography is just a reflection of it.

You ever listen back to your old stuff? A lot of fans tend to like the artist's older material -- I've noticed they hold it very close to heart. But then I wonder if the artists feel the same way.  I'm sure there are some artists who look back on their old stuff and are like, Oh, man, what was that flow I was using? That cadence was a bit [iffy]. Where do you stand on that?

It depends on what it is. If it's something cringy I won't listen to it. I can't listen to bad stuff that I did. You know, man. But like, Death Is Certain, that's my second album, that's probably my most critically acclaimed album. I never listen to that album just because of where it would take me mentally. The memories I don't want. So I don't listen to that. I've been listening to some stuff of mine lately that I didn't normally listen to. I'm finding that I don't go back further than the first PRhyme, when I first got sober. I don't go further than that. Maybe it's jut old to me or something. But yeah, I can go back and I can go back as far as PRhyme. Anything from PRhyme on to current I can listen to. And I have my favorites on all of the projects just like they're how I listen to other albums. It's pretty cool.

Royce Da 5'9"

Image via Artist

I still look back on Rock City-- I that it's a gem. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but there are two versions of Rock City. Am I crazy?

The version we put out was called Version 2.0 and that's just because by the time we released it, it came out through Koch/E1. But I actually recorded the album on Sony, signed to Columbia Sony, and I moved from Colombia Sony to Koch. I took the album and did a few things to it. Just called it Rock City Version 2.0. But the original version was supposed to come out on Columbia-Sony.

I had both of them at one point. "Mr. Baller" with The Neptunes and Clipse, that was 2.0 I think. I remember there was one with the song "What Would You Do." It was a good one.

Yeah, it was the Columbia version.

Yeah. I think with a song like that, that kind of sound reminds me of your sound today. Maybe a more basic version, for lack of a better word, but I think you can trace it back. The lineage is there for sure.

That shit is so far! The Rock City album? I was definitely a baby. I was a baby. And I didn't know what I was doing yet. So you know, a lot of that stuff is cringy to me. Yeah, it's like, I was out of key. Oh, what am I talking about? What am I doing? Oh, it's like I was so wet behind the ears.

I mean, you did allude to it on "Rhinestone Doo-Rag" on Allegory. I think that was a little easter egg for the longtime fans who are like, Oh, yeah, I know that reference.

The rhinestone doo-rag is the proverbial decision that artists make. And it's the thing that we do to make other people okay with it. It's the thing that we do where we're going against our better judgment because we're not sure. It's like stylists. I need a stylist? Okay, if you say I need a stylist. I never thought I needed a stylist. But you know, if that's what we're doing, if that's part of it, if that's what being signed to a major label is, then I got to play ball. So you know, if they present this to me -- this rhinestone doo-rag to me -- maybe not in that moment, I can't tell it is ridiculous. But something is telling me it's not a usual decision that I would make. But hey, you know, I gotta try things. I'll give it a shot.

And when you do that, when you give things a shot, you get to take everything that comes with that. And the rhinestone doo rag is forever encapsulated in history. Instead of looking back at it and going oh man, I had on a rhinestone doo-rag, embrace it and use it to teach. Because just like I can look back at that, the younger artists are going to come in and they're going to make decisions just like that. Just like that. So my thing is you don't have to wear the rhinestone doo rag. You don't have to make that rhinestone doo-rag decision. Because there's a rhinestone doo-rag decision attached to every new artist's project-in-process.

Yeah, definitely. It's like what you said on "Dumb." They'll consult you about your image, bro!

They'll consult you about everything. I mean, one thing I learned about labels, it's that if you don't know exactly what you are, and you can't express that to them in a way where they understand, then they'll try to tell you what they think you are. When you get to that point, now you're in a bad spot. You're in a bad spot because you've got just a bunch of people standing in front of the crap table shaking dice. And whatever happens, you're gonna wear it -- nobody else. You're gonna bear the brunt of whatever bad comes out of that and it's just like, damn, that's that's tough. That's a tough position to be in for somebody who just wanted to make music.

Definitely. I've seen enough. I'm sure everyone's seen footage from these boardroom meetings, where artists are showing a big table of people their album, and it's just people sitting there listening while the artist is blasting their music. It's like screening music in that way versus recording it in the studio with people who are actually into it and vibing to it -- it's two completely different worlds. And it's like, how can you value the industry side of it more than the organic creative side of it, you know? So I'm just wondering, what's stopping artists right now from taking that Russ route and using a distributing platform to upload all their music? You know, what's the big obstacle there? Is it a lack of experience? Is it a lack of confidence? 

Well, I mean, it's a lack of information, I think, mostly. It's just a lack of information. And coming into the business nine times out of ten, you're a kid. Everything that you think you know about what you want out of the music you got from just watching TV, looking at other artists. So you think you want to be famous, you think you want to be rich, and automatically, in order to achieve that you have to go sign with a major. You look at somebody like Russ, he's rich, he's not as famous as he could be if he was signed to Universal. So if you want that, then you go the Russ route, but you're still going into that blind. You still making adjustments going into that. You don't even identify that as an option because you don't have the information.

The only difference between Russ and somebody else that's independent is just that he took in more information. I think it's really cool that he's sharing that information. I think the reason why there's such a disconnect is information is being hoarded by artists, and people thinking that they're in competition with their contemporaries. But we're not. We're supposed to be like a unit. And the same way, if Spotify decides that they want to lower the percentage in which they pay out, the same way that they come together with all the labels and make one blanket statement to let us know that, that's the way we need to be. So it's like, all of those options should be presented in front of us and our youngins coming in should know exactly how to navigate through those. But it's not like that. Everybody's learning as they go. So just like the fear of the unknown is why. A lot of times, artists are just taken the row with the least resistance. 

Little do they know that roads got some speed bumps down the line though.

It's gonna be a rough journey for you regardless because you're going in blind.

I just worry that sometimes this oversaturation just seems like it's needed for artists to even keep afloat right now. People are so quick to move on to something new. Man, I work in the news cycle -- I see it firsthand. I've written millions of words. And it's like, these stories, they just kind of go forgotten. Stories from two years ago, who remembers that? You know, no one remembers anything that happened two years ago at this point. Like, how do you compete with the oversaturation of information now?

I think, us artists, we just always have to remember that it all comes down to the music. It's always going to just go back to the music. So knowing what you just said, in my mind, I'm thinking, Okay, where am I at with this music three months from now? Can they still listen to it three months from now? Because I already know they're not sensationalizing it three months from now, because that's, that's just not how the patterns of the human consumption of music and information works. You know, like, that very first moment, that new moment, that new thing to discuss is what people are chasing every day, all day.

And I'm even what you were talking about with the executives in the big room, you know, listening to the-- like, none of these people listen to music that way anyway. It's like you're placing them in something not even their comfort zone. You know, I mean, people just take in music different ways. Some people only listen to music in the car. Some people only listen when they work out. Some people only go to the nightclub and listen to music. Some people listen to music sitting in front of their computers. Some people will listen while playing video games and whoever they're streaming are the highest streaming artists because of the way in which their fans engage music. It's just different now, so no matter how you look at all those platforms, and all of those intangibles that I just gave you, if you can create something that you can go back to, that has some sort of replay value when you don't feel like sensationalizing, I think you did your job. I think that's what you're required to do.

I like that. In 2020, I think it's important to acknowledge that artists and the media have an interesting relationship at times. One that isn't always as harmonious as it should be, in my opinion. And you know, as someone who works in the media, I want to do right by artists. I value what artists bring to the table, personally speaking, and it's important to me to bring that as best as I can. You know, obviously, that's not always the clearest path. But I'm wondering if you have any advice for the media in general, or ways to maybe heal some wounds? Because I know, a lot of rappers look disfavorably on the media, and it would be nice to see the relationship mend a little bit. Do you think it's possible at this point?

Of course. I think anything is possible. I think you guys have a job just like we have a job. Sometimes we don't always get out ahead of things. You know, sometimes the music is in disarray, sometimes it takes an artist or two to come through and do the right shit, that fills the right void to balance these things back out. And I think you guys got to read the room in the same way. You know, sometimes the media could just be looking crazy -- you look like everybody's covering the bullshit, or it can look like everybody's focusing on what will get clicks and all of that. And I think, whoever your greats are, whether it's you or whoever has a higher calling, whoever those people are, that's their time to spring into action, and provide some sort of balance from a media standpoint.

There's always going to be a relationship there between artists and media -- it's going to be a love-hate relationship. You know, because you guys are in a tough spot. Because some of us artists, we only want to hear you say one thing about us, you know what I mean? And that has really nothing to do with you, it really just varies with artists. So it's no way to please all of us all the time. All you guys can't, you know, cover only the cultural shit. Some of you guys got to be fucked up people -- some of yall -- to provide that balance. I mean the media can't be all peachy across the board, because that's not really American, right? It's just about somebody having the wherewithal to provide that balance."

"There's always going to be a relationship there between artists and media -- it's going to be a love-hate relationship. You know, because you guys are in a tough spot. Because some of us artists, we only want to hear you say one thing about us, you know what I mean? And that has really nothing to do with you, it really just varies with artists. So it's no way to please all of us all the time. All you guys can't, you know, cover only the cultural shit. Some of you guys got to be fucked up people -- some of yall -- to provide that balance. I mean the media can't be all peachy across the board, because that's not really American, right?"

And it's the same with labels. You know, it's the same with labels. You're gonna have, you're gonna have those companies that adopt ideologies that steal from artists, and then you're gonna have the companies-- Chappelle just did the thing. And he described his relationship with Netflix, and I thought that was cool. Netflix actually took the stuff down, because he told them, he didn't like the way it made him feel. And like that, for them to care about that is like such a dope step. Because the day of the big conglomerate machine treating the artists like we're second rate, or treating Dave Chappelle like he's not a national treasure,  it's like a thing of the past. Because we all have a microphone now. We all have a voice. There actually may be a day where the machine and the creator can actually have a relationship. Right now, that's not even possible. You know, like, the machine prospers more when you don't know things. So it's like when it's to your detriment, that's when it's worth more money to them.

So why in the world, would I ever want you to have information and know what you are? Why in the world would I want that? How can we have a relationship? Michael Jackson left Sony owning half of their publishing. And when he was up when this contract was up, and he decided he was moving on as opposed to renegotiating, they were infuriated. They loved him when they were making money with them. And they don't have the mental fortitude to say, you know what, we made a lot of money with him and we wish him the best. He made us a lot of money. No! If we can't make money with you, then we want to ruin you! We don't even want you to exist! So it's like, why would you think that you can have a relationship with that? And even to take a deeper dive, you put all your energy into building a relationship with that, while you think that you're competing with who you should be building a relationship with! It's backwards.

Royce Da 5'9"

Image via Artist

The dynamic man, it's--

Everybody's following this anecdotal regurgitation of just stupid stuff. Shit. Like the machine -- they got their talking points down. They got their story down pat. I mean, like they got us fooled. It's just like, we're just repeating things. Oh, man, you can't do that. What I'm doing right now in my career dispels everything. It's like, all these rules the labels created? It just looks stupid. ‘No, no, he's too old. You can't do that. No, you can't be-- independent album out? No. Nope we can do that.Lil Baby's gonna get nominated for everything. I mean, nobody listens to that. It's all about numbers. But no! What's my favorite one? The attention span. You have to shorten your songs. It's the attention span. People don't like long songs. People don't like long albums. People don't like-- they don't know what people like, bro! Nobody can answer these questions, man. It's like nobody can do that. There's somebody right now listening to a long album. I'm not one of those people. But they're out there.

You’re a short album fan?

I don’t really listen to albums.

Okay.

I skim through things. I've indulged in music so much over the years. And I'm not a music listener guy so much. Very rarely do I just kick back and listen to music. I don't drive a lot. I don't go a lot of places. Sometimes I just need to be left to my thoughts and I don't always have the luxury of being able to listen to things as a fan and not analyze. I'm kind of stuck in that space sometimes. I have a wide range of things that I love. I can listen to Stevie Wonder, and he can make me happy and then I can turn around and I can listen to The Chronic which is one of the greatest albums of all time. And I go down rabbit holes depending on what's going to make me happy. I don't know. I've watched artists, like The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill defied all the anecdotal rules. She came out, she was battle rapping. She was dissing all of the hot girls. She had long verses. And she did everything that they said you're not supposed to do. And she shifted everything. You know what I mean? Like, because it was great music. 

For sure. And speaking of great music, I wanted to learn more about Heaven Studios in general and how that's evolved. I was just checking out Marv Won's new project that he just dropped. And I saw that he had recorded some of it at Heaven. And to me that caught my eye. Shout out Marv, one of-- in my opinion-- battle rap's best.

For sure. That's my guy, too. Yeah, it's not open to the public right now. Its kind of like my house. I'm going through this kind of transitional phase, where I'm having a lot of visual ideas. So I've been buying cameras and I'm building sets in my studio. So I got TV sets that I'm building here. So like my ultimate goal is just to be able to flesh out all my ideas and actualize visions. Like actually bring them to life without having to outsource anything. I love spending all my time here. I just need to be able to maximize all of the space that I got here. I need to be able to do it myself and have fun doing it. So that's kind of like what I've been.

I'd be curious. Speaking of the bigger vision, it makes me miss the liner notes, like you were talking about before. I'm surprised that DSPs haven't adapted that, that you can't press the album cover and scroll through a slideshow of the booklet. Do they just not exist? Like when you're doing a project, are there even liner notes to look through at this point if you're not doing a physical copy?

Yeah, you just have to know how to find them. You literally got to go through the trouble of-- you listen to it on DSPs and then they give you a limited amount of information. If you want to know more, you got to go to Wikipedia. You got to go to the production discography or just google something is like-- everything is just all computer-based. You got to go to Genius to hear what is he saying. If you want to do that, it's cool. There's something about that process that people are into. All of the various ways of finding things.

It used to be like that, too in a bit of a different way. The landscape when we're looking back on the late 90s, early 2000s, when the internet was starting to come into play. I will admit I was a little bit of a downloader of music. People would be scouring the internet to find these albums with no information. And like, nowadays, artists are dropping, giving a week's notice and releasing. 

Yeah man. We just adapted to it. I adapted the Limewire, I adapted to MySpace. I was a completely different person for all of those eras. The better you do will be based on how well you understand where we're at from a technological standpoint. Because it was a moment in time where it was like, Okay, this is obvious, technologically, how things advanced, it's what's going to control shit. Now that's what it's about. Get Rich Or Die Tryin was like, energy and numbers at the same time. You heard it in every store walking in the mall. You heard it in every car at stop lights and shit like that. Now, you could do those same numbers, a million the first week, and never hear it! It's crazy. But you know what, it'll be a million the first week not because a million people went out and bought it, but because you have a certain fan base who takes in music a certain way that garners more numbers. So you're talking about a whole different conversation. You're not talking about that's the biggest artist right now. That's not the biggest artist right now. That's a big artist right now. But that's not what 50 Cent was at Get Rich Or Die Tryin. It's almost like that's the thing of the past now. So you can either look at it that way or not.

"'Get Rich Or Die Tryin' was like, energy and numbers at the same time. You heard it in every store walking in the mall. You heard it in every car at stop lights and shit like that. Now, you could do those same numbers, a million the first week, and never hear it! It's crazy. But you know what, it'll be a million the first week not because a million people went out and bought it, but because you have a certain fan base who takes in music a certain way that garners more numbers."

I don't know if any artists could ever beat 50 Cent's Get Rich Or Die Tryin honestly, that's like the perfect mix of commercial success and critically acclaimed. A real cultural shift.

Yeah, and if you look at it, it's really just all the elements. Everything else that you consider great has all those elements. That's every classic that you can think of. And it's just existing, based off of the generation that it came out in. A lot of things that Drake does, you know, the way that they market that guy is like, yo, he's been around the longest, the most hits. It’s like, bro. He's the first of his kind. I definitely agree with that. So you can't really compare him to Jay Z. It's just a whole new energy. This is our first time seeing it. So it's like, you can't compare him to Wayne. It's hard to compare him to Wayne because Wayne's like catching charges and shits happening to distract you, but you don't realize how important Wayne is unless you know what you're looking at. You don't realize how important Cash Money Records is because of the other things that overshadow what they are. You know, like, it's crazy. It's crazy. It's so many other things now.

Lil Wayne's still doing numbers today too, though.

Yeah, I mean, he does numbers because he's one of our greats. But because of his journey, it's easy to forget that. It's easy to lose sight of that. And it's never been put in perspective properly. It's never been broken down and placed in front of you the proper way what he has contributed. Like nobody really repeats that enough. It's not enough people going, Oh, well, you know, he gave us a Drake and Nicki. Nobody says that, they just go “Drake, look at Drake, he’s so handsome. Drake, Drake, Drake, Drake, Drake.” You know because Drake has you in awe of his greatness. But Wayne is a different level of greatness. Like Jay Z is a different level of greatness, man. They embody so much. Kanye, what he was able to achieve -- now remember, that guy was around the culture as a beat maker that was dope. And he started making albums, amazing albums. I mean, that's tough to do, man. College Dropout is a tough thing to achieve. You know, it wasn't cool to not be an aggressive rapper at that moment, man. You had to be a tough guy.

Remember, Ye, produced for D12 back then, did a track with D12. Yeah. I don't know if people know that out there, but it's true. I don't know how common knowledge shit like that really is honestly. I don't know, some people might find that interesting, I guess. So look, before we wrap, Album of the Year suggestions. I know you said you weren't really an album guy. But if you could see one album, not necessarily of the Grammy nominations, but an album that's really meant a lot to you this year, that you've been keeping on steady rotation.

I don't know if I have that album. I haven't delved into many albums. But the way some of the albums have performed and have existed -- like Roddy Rich man. Roddy Rich has existed in a cool way, man. A lot of energy, a lot of energy around his album. I haven't really heard an album like that. But everything that I've heard in passing has been really dope. And pushing the envelope, moving the needle. I like that. You know. Griselda has released some really good albums. I think they get overlooked in a lot of ways when you start talking about bodies of work. They got some good bodies of work. I'd have to think. I'm definitely gonna be looking at all of those lists, though. I don't know why I care about those lists.

Well, they're there. They're out there.

Maybe they just got us programmmed. I don't care about those lists but I care about those lists. Because I don't care about them. I don't feel away, but I care enough to go look.

I have a question now. And you gotta be honest. Do you read the write-ups, or do just look at the order?

I'll probably read both depending on if I'm just chilling here. I'll read both. But the order is more important.

Fair enough. Is it one or nothing? Is it top 10? At what point are you like, “Okay, this is good.”

There was a point in time where I was happy to just be mentioned. Then it started getting to a point where it's like, Alright, I'd like to be a little higher up there. Now it's just like, wherever you got me, that's gonna teach me something that's interesting. If I'm not on there at all, that's gonna teach me something. That year-end list shit is what birthed Bar Exam. You know, like The Bar Exam 4 came from people not including me on the year-end lists. I was pissed off. That's where those freestyle started...It's one of those things where I can't allow myself to be upset, but if you overlook me as a lyricist, I gotta do something about that. That's good fuel.

Understandable. What do you got planned for 2021? Any new releases coming?

Hopefully. Right now I'm not like all the way into something enough to where I can say I'm actually working on a project. But I have been doing very random ideas. I've been putting more of my energy into my mental health initiative. And building in here. So I've been trying to really brainstorm cool ideas for content and for my show in here, utilizing all these rooms and going down rabbit holes. Like lighting rabbit holes and camera rabbit holes and sound rabbit holes and different people to work with. You can wire things, and mount speakers, and make it look neat. It's a whole different way of thinking. And through all of that is-- how do I infuse music in all of this? How do I place my artists on the pedestal and control everything that it is about them that you see? How do I do that? Because I think that's what's important right now.

I'm looking forward to seeing whatever you got next. Honestly, enjoy this time. You deserve it.

Thank you, my brother. I appreciate you, man.

Pleasure as always, and if we don't talk before then,  best of luck for the Grammys. I forget when that's set to air, I guess February, isn't it?

We don't normally pay attention. But I have the dates for you. Don't worry about it.

Good luck. But even if you don't win -- the album's amazing.

Thank you, man. I appreciate it my brother.

Royce Da 5'9"

Image via Artist