“Is that Roc official like his last jawn? My best hip hop debate w/ hov was over that record.”
That’s a recent Tweet from Roots drummer ?uestlove, in conversation with hip-hop producer the Alchemist, describing an earlier argument with Jay-Z concerning rapper Roc Marciano’s 2010 album Marcberg. Well, none of the above will be disappointed with the sequel.
The grimy, lo-fi Marcberg met with a curious reception: It notched a smattering of year-end accolades from critics and was hailed by a small group of New York rappers as a beacon of the city’s enduring prowess, but it was ultimately dwarfed in a glitzy year defined by Drake’s debut, Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and Rick Ross’ Teflon Don. Steadily though, the cult coalesced as the record became a classic of its type, born from the city’s underbelly, nodding to its heritage, but willing to move on from its past. Now comes the superior follow-up Reloaded, which ensures ?uesto will be having another fireside chat with Jay about the evolution of Roc Marci.
How the seasoned MC from Hempstead, Long Island, reached this point of acclaim is a lesson in career survival. First, Marciano put in a late-’90s stint with Busta Rhymes’ underwhelming Flipmode Squad; when that crew splintered, he rolled with the U.N., a group that crafted the steely UN or U Out album in 2004 (complete with a swab of production from Pete Rock). Then, a period of silence. His profile sank deeper underground, perhaps never to resurface. But on Marcberg, he finally found his voice. Entirely self-produced (and featuring one scant guest verse from Brownsville, Brooklyn’s Ka), it showcased a seamless alliance of beats and vocals, of rhythm and thug poetry. Marcy’s hushed tone and menacing nonchalance meshed with beats lifted from a stack of ’70s soul and psych records, overlaid with a patina of hiss and grub. It was a singular vision relayed through sonics evoking a muddy cassette tape.
Reloaded smartly furthers that formula. Most of its 15 songs have an elementary structure, involving some sort of drug-related transaction, the graphic threat of a weapon, or a sprinkling of the food references that have become a running theme within a select faction of New York rappers like Action Bronson and Mayhem Lauren. It’s pure hip-hop food porn when Marciano raps, “The outside of the tilapia is blackened.”
Meanwhile, the production once again sounds like our host holed up in a dank room with a crate of vinyl and embraced whatever soul and funk grooves caught his ear that day, although this time around he’s welcomed some outside help. The Alchemist serves up three beats (including the caustic and cacophonous “Pistolier”), Bronx fixture and A.G. associate Ray West supplies the dusky “Nine Spray,” the Archdruids muster up visions of urban blight on “Emeralds,” and Q-Tip’s “Threadcount” comes off like the long-lost cousin to A Tribe Called Quest’s “If the Papes Come.” Despite these external production touches, Reloaded’s vibe stays consistently bleak and murky throughout — until you hit closer “The Man.” Powered by a gloriously redemptive organ line, it feels like the sudden lifting of a huge weight off your shoulders. It’s a glorious end chapter.
All this alone makes Reloaded a very good record, but Marciano’s writing style elevates it to a great one. His rhymes are as arrogant and grisly as you’d expect from someone writing a New York City soundtrack; he spans both the panoramic and the personal, but smartly leaves out the clutter of unnecessary details in between. You’re aware that he’s rapping against the shadowy backdrop of an imposing metropolis as soon as the infernal wail of “Tek to a Mack” announces itself, but from that vantage point, he skips ahead to more intimate situations. Sometimes they become uncomfortably intimate — on “Threadcount,” he warns he’s about to “turn a knife in your kidney” — but there’s a purposeful haziness to the scenarios that ensures the musical spell is never broken.
So there’s a “rust brown” gun on “Nine Spray” — “an oldie but goodie” — whose color and texture alone give it a back-story that doesn’t require explicit detailing. On “Peru,” he’s riding in a grey Saab with his father and remembering that “it rained on the day that Marvin Gaye died,” when both men sobbed. Then he looks on as “my lawyer pop the crocodile suitcase.” There’s a life story lurking between those two details, but one that’s left up to your imagination to complete, taking cues from the beat and clues from the rhymes. So his verses become a series of vignettes, the album a broad sketch lit up by evocative one-off imagery. It’s a trick that brings to mind the savvy way Jay-Z established his hustler’s mythology on Reasonable Doubt: “I’ll tell you half the story / The rest you fill it in.”
This guy isn’t exactly new to rap music, and Reloaded shows that maturity can bring an appreciation for, and mastery of, restraint. Right now, Compton’s Kendrick Lamar is being praised for evoking and honoring his hometown on good kid, m.A.A.d. city; Roc Marcy has pulled off a similar (if less heralded) feat twice now. And while Lamar’s album occasionally stumbles as he pushes to make his point, Marcy realizes that some things aren’t meant to be explained. Interpretation can be more evocative than instruction. And on Reloaded, he’s written perhaps the most vivid rap album of the year — and possibly of his lifetime.