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Blue Chips

The Southside Cinema of MARCO PLUS

Two years ago, the Atlanta rapper was suicidal and virtually unknown. Now, he’s signed to Cinematic Music Group.
Marco Plus
(Credit: Moja Mwangi)

Blue Chips is a monthly rap column that highlights exceptional rising rappers. To read previous columns, click here.

Artistic excellence isn’t quantifiable like rushing yards or three-point shooting percentages. Taste is subjective and variable. But for better or Logic, through some combination of record label-backing, commercial performance, virality, and critical consensus, every generation gets the rap stars it deserves. MARCO PLUS believes he’s next in line.

“I don’t feel like anyone has stepped up to the plate yet as far as being the next [star]. Maybe everybody came out too close to Kendrick, Drake, and Cole,” the 25-year-old Atlanta native says over the phone from his home in the city’s Oakland City neighborhood. He lives there with several members of BACKSEAT!, the rap group he records with when he isn’t working on his solo material. “But I feel like it’s the right time for me to [reach that level].”

MARCO’s self-belief may or may not bear out. For now, his confidence is warranted. He’s one of Atlanta’s most promising rappers and recently signed to Cinematic Music Group (CMG), the label responsible for early releases from Joey Bada$$, Mick Jenkins, and Big K.R.I.T. MARCO’s wouldn’t be out of place on playlists with his CMG forbears or fellow Atlantans like Earthgang and JID. It’s bar-minded, Outkast-apostle rap laced with introspection and social commentary. MARCO spits with intensity and affability, delivering punchlines in alternately spastic and relaxed cadences. At times, it’s as if his blunts came with shots of adrenaline. He bookends the intricate wordplay with well-crafted hooks, his adherence to traditional song structure as refreshing as it is calculated.

“I’m cracking the code, and I’m making it digestible for everybody, not just people who love rap. Without sacrificing my lyricism or dumbing myself down,” MARCO says. “You just have to make it good.”

Late October’s Tha Soufside Villain LP was MARCO’s first CMG project, an excellent postscript to his 2021 breakout, That Souf Got Sum 2 Say. A literate rap scholar, MARCO bridges generational and geographical divides on Tha Soufside Villain, his references landing both with blunt force and assured subtlety. He’ll nod to B-Legit, Killa Cam, Chief Keef, and Kodak Black with equal élan over soulful, jazzy boom-bap and more modern, trap-leaning production. His decade-spanning appeal extends to his sports and pop culture allusions. Older listeners can appreciate the Manute Bol and Dragonball Z lines, while younger ones can identify with those riffing on Skylar Diggins and One Punch Man. He’s also tapping in with Atlanta’s rising guard, rapping alongside fellow rising artists like Kenny Mason, Deanté Hitchcock, and GRIP. Though each of MARCO’s verses brims with braggadocio, the lines addressing his depression and past addiction make each chest-beating punchline more resonant.

“I like to give people bits and pieces [of my life] at a time because, at a certain point, I’m going to need all of it,” he says

MARCO was born in Pensacola, Fla. but raised in Atlanta’s southside. Rap was his plan since he was in Pampers. Reciting Hot Boys verses as a toddler led to rapping lyrics he wrote with his family’s help. By grade school, MARCO was glued to BET, the Youngbloodz videos on 106th and Park trumping any cartoon. He was an avid reader and book fair attendee, but Goosebumps and Harry Potter couldn’t compete with T.I.’s trap anthems or Lil Wayne’s syrup-addled wizardry.

“I spent my whole school career writing music. By the time I was in the 7th grade, I didn’t give a fuck about [school],” MARCO explains. “I didn’t want to be anything else. I never planned on being a teacher, a doctor, or a lawyer. I wanted to be a musician.”

Writing raps in class and occasionally recording in the band room felt like half-measures, so MARCO dropped out his junior year of high school. He released his first project, My Friends Understand, at 18. The title was intended to be ironic, an acknowledgment that he felt grossly misunderstood throughout his teens. Depressed, increasingly dependent on pills, and eventually kicked out of his grandparents’ home, MARCO moved back to Pensacola in 2016.

The following two years in the Sunshine State did little to slow his spiral. MARCO jumped between jobs and family homes while recording sporadically, pills rarely out of reach. When a friend died by suicide behind the shed turned studio where they’d recorded, MARCO knew it was time to return to Atlanta. Unlike planes he saw working at the airport, his rap career didn’t take off. Then his brief relationship with his then-girlfriend imploded, and he believed he might never see his newborn daughter again. At 22, MARCO was suicidal.

“[The way that relationship ended] tore me to pieces. I really had to rebuild myself back up. No matter how much money I made or anything, nothing could heal that pain,” MARCO says. “I didn’t feel loved. It made me feel like I wasn’t nothing.”

While the dissolution of that relationship nearly wrecked MARCO, the prospect of parenting pulled him out of his depression. He began recording in earnest, releasing three increasingly auspicious projects in 2021: Plus 2, Sparco, and Tha Souf Got Sum 2 Say. Early managers helped him land on small blogs, but artists and labels flooded his DMs after his songs won Genius’s voter-driven new music contest The Cosign Live three consecutive times. Shortly after MARCO toured with Atlanta’s GRIP in the spring of 2022, he signed with Cinematic Music Group.

“[MARCO] is a perfect example of what Cinematic is meant to embody. He raps visuals on tracks. If you close your eyes, you feel like you’re on the southside of Atlanta with him,” says CMG founder and CEO Jonny Shipes. Impressed with “Lately” from Tha South Got Sun 2 Say, Shipes was soon a fan of all the material in MARCO’s catalog. “I think what sets him apart is his lyrics and the beats he picks. It’s southern hip-hop but with his own vibe to it.”

MARCO will bring that vibe to thousands in the months ahead, supporting Youtube rapper Token on over a dozen dates of his Never Too Different tour. He’s as delighted to tour but equally cognizant of where he’s been and what’s next.

“Two years ago, I started my musical journey for real. I’m about to go on a nationwide tour,” MARCO says. “We started with nothing, and now we’re at this point. I feel like the trajectory is only upward.”