The Next Spot is a recurring series dedicated to the albums that could’ve, would’ve, should’ve made the Decade Top 50.
“My wife don’t like my album,” sneers Ryan Montgomery– better known as Royce da 5’9”– on the closing track on Death is Certain, “Something’s Wrong with Him”, “It’s way too dark for women, she say it sounds like I hold grudges. She’d rather listen to Joe Budden.”
Before Nickel-Nine would form Slaughterhouse with the target of the punch line immediately following his wife’s 75 or less review, he was all alone. Of course, D-Elite, his obligatory rap entourage, was lurking in the shadows, but Death is Certain is primarily the document of a preternaturally-talented rapper deserted by peers, fans, and friends (mainly longtime Bad Meets Evil partner Eminem and his D-12 crew)–Nas before he dropped “Ether.”
Armed with a seemingly endless supply of ammunition (both emotionally and literally), Royce starts firing shots within seconds, quoting the opening words of “Lose Yourself,” and snickering at Kim Mathers’ substance abuse on “Regardless,” utilizing what is likely the most sinister flip of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” hip-hop has ever seen. During those three minutes: Nickel shrugs off his brief hiatus from rap: “The stolen spot is open, I chose to not listen/I don’t even know what’s hot or who dissin’.” Later, on “I Promise,” he quickly flips the bird to Kanye West regarding a disagreement over an unreleased track entitled “Heartbeat.” But primarily, Death is Certain is underscored by the now-simmered beef between he and the Shady/Aftermath stable, with its protagonist recalling the dream-job of ghostwriting for Dr. Dre, and his father imploring him to create a body of work without having a name inextricably tied to that of Slim Shady, who often credited Royce for helping shape his style.
When not explicitly referencing his friends turning their backs on him, Royce lurks through the shadows, cribbing lines from hip-hop greats, and slicing punks with knives that come with teeth. Buoyed by beats that are reminiscent of Bad Boy’s late-90’s era (don’t front, some of those beats on Diddy‘s otherwise-abysmal Forever record are pretty great)– the mournful guitar and clicking rim shots of “Beef,” the menacing, bassline-driven “Gangsta,” and the live drums of “Something’s Wrong with Him” sitting in place with the ethereal boom-bap of DJ Premier’s “Hip-Hop”– they provide an optimal backdrop for Royce to paint a convincing sociopath persona, bucking shells at almost everything that moves. With a black cloud drifting over the entire album, Death is Certain is arguably the most nihilistic, misanthropic record to be released this decade. Hell, even Hell Hath No Fury had “Dirty Money.”
Simply by titling the album Death is Certain, Nickel is well-aware that regardless of how much pain he inflicts, he is just as susceptible to it. There is no greater proof of this fact than on the quasi-title track, “Death is Certain Pt. 2 (It Hurts),” a heartbreaking story of a friend succumbing to gunshot wounds and featuring the only rap lyrics that have ever made tears well up in my eyes:
Death is not no option
I’m pulling money outta my pocket trying to con the doctor
Please, treat this thug the way you would treat yo’ baby
The way that you would treat yo’ blood, I’LL PAY
Royce is saddled with the fact that if you live by the gun, you die by the gun, but he pleads anyway, saying, “This ain’t one of them that came through/ shot that should have been careful.” As his friend flatlines, Royce hangs his head low and realizes that death is certain for everyone, including himself. But still, he loads his gun and heads off into the dark anyway; the final words that exit his mouth being, “You cut on them lights, I will kill you.”–Douglas Martin