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First Listen: PRhyme, 'PRhyme'

PRhyme is Royce Da 5'9" (left) and DJ Premier.
Courtesy of The Chamber Group
PRhyme is Royce Da 5'9" (left) and DJ Premier.

PRhyme, rapper Royce Da 5' 9" and producer DJ Premier's collaborative project, is in actual fact a hardcore rap fan's fantasy realized; it's also one of those mythical instances of a good-looking tracklist exceeding all expectations. PRyhme is a nine-song testament to its creators' perseverance in changing times and proof positive that — even in an era when novelty supplants quality more often than not — the "dope rhymes, dope beats" formula can still yield something remarkable.

The album's name is a bold statement in itself: rap's peanut gallery might argue that Royce, who made his debut with Eminem in the late '90s, and DJ Premier, who made his debut with Gang Starr a decade before that, are not in the prime of their respective careers at this very moment. Save for a few lauded lyricists like Kendrick Lamar, Lupe Fiasco and the aforementioned Em, it is true that there's not much of a premium placed on the type of high-level technical rhyming Royce does anymore. The emphasis today is on melody, cadence and overall catchiness — few points are awarded for complexity. It's not that contemporary audiences absolutely don't appreciate wordsmiths, but their stock has gone down. And DJ Premier's signature chopped samples, scratched-in-vocal-sample-collage-as-chorus and boom bap drums are far from the production style du jour. Even though Premier is one of the few producers who can boast production credits for hip-hop's Holy Trinity (B.I.G., Jay Z and Nas), a Preemo beat and the legitimacy it confers is today more a feather in the cap of underground artists with East Coast/Golden Era inclinations than it is a jewel in the crown of rap's current rulers. Despite all that, the peanut gallery might have it twisted.

"Marshall said that I'd be a problem if I get my s--- right / That 'if' is probably the biggest 'if' I ever lived by / Which is why / I'm known as an underachiever" laments Royce on the album's title cut. Confessional and unabashed, forceful without necessarily being prideful, Royce lays his soul bare over dramatic piano chords and ascending vintage synth sounds. He's a half remorseful philanderer with an alcohol problem who has tasted both success and failure and spit them in the faces of his those around him more than once. He knows that at age 37 he's getting long in the tooth as a rapper and compares himself to former NBA player Tim Hardaway when a cornrowed, swaggering Allen Iverson came into the league with a crossover that made his own obsolete.

From a lyrical standpoint the song "PRhyme" is the perfect introduction to a project that is as full of guarded introspection ("To Me, To You") as it is aggression ("Underground Kings"). Back in 2000, when Premier and Royce collaborated on the underground hit "Boom," the Detroit rapper was just as dexterous but less refined than he is on PRhyme. He specialized in bar after bar of bravado, razor sharp rhymes delivered ever so precisely over instrumentals. It was effortless, it was awe-inspiring, but it was sterile. Years of industry ups-and-downs, falling outs and reunions, beefs, bids and platinum plaques have made him a more well-rounded MC than he ever was.

DJ Premier has weathered his share of triumphs and tragedies, too. His split with Gang Starr MC Guru, their brief reconciliation and Guru's subsequent death was just the most public. And though any hope of a Gang Starr reunion passed away with his partner, Preemo's been the consummate underground rap stalwart and champion of the East Coast hip-hop aesthetic he helped pioneer in the '90s. While some of his contemporaries switched up their sound in an effort to remain relevant or rejoin the conversation, Premier maintained.

The PRhyme project began as an idea for a collaborative album between Premier and Royce's supergroup Slaughterhouse, which includes rappers Joell Ortiz, Crooked I and Joe Budden. When schedules and agendas didn't match, the idea was pared down to Royce and Premier. And a twist was introduced: Premier would use only the music of composer Adrian Younge as a sample source. Preemo has said he realized, after some resistance, that Younge's music — new compositions played and recorded on analog equipment in the style of the late '60s and early '70s — has the feel of the dustiest samples he'd unearthed crate digging. The result on PRhyme is a reinvigorated DJ Premier, one whose framework is the same but has become more potent when put in contact with Younge's rich music.

On "You Should Know" swelling strings and soaring horns become a triumphant, regal sound bed for Royce's s-----talking and fellow Detroit's representative Dwele's complementary crooning. For "Wishin'" Premier supplies Royce and guest Common with one of his signature two-movement productions (see: Jay Z's "A Million and One Questions/Rhyme No More" and M.O.P.'s "Face Off"). Intense electric guitar licks and record rubs give way to an up-tempo, high-energy drumbeat laced with chopped up guitar stabs — an adrenaline pumping reminder of the ingenuity DJ Premier brings to the table.

In addition to top-notch performances from the principles PRhyme features spitters Mac Miller, Ab-Soul, Jay Electronica, ScHoolboy Q and Killer Mike, all in rare form. Rap fantasies do come true, and not all artists age out.

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Timmhotep Aku