It’s not often an emcee gets better with age. Roc Marciano is like a fine wine, an expensive one at that. As Jay-Z once said, you can pay for school but you can’t buy class. Roc Marciano may not have had to pay for school, but the guy is as smart as emcees come, establishing himself as an elite rhymer with his project back in 2004 as part of The U.N. (not that one). “U N Or U Out” was a criminally underappreciated record that was blessed by some corking Pete Rock production. Nowadays it could be considered a cult classic, particularly as it’s unlikely we’ll see another U.N. project any time soon. However before this, Roc Marciano was a member of Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad who were ultimately underused as a group. It’s hard to picture the guy as part of a group nowadays, having dominated near enough every record he has graced over the past five years.
Marciano’s tongue has effectively developed in to a paintbrush, where each stroke is intricate yet effortless. I stressed this in my review of 2012’s “Reloaded” – rap can be a powerful tool. Whether it is provocative, emotional or plain ol’ ignorant, rarely does it feel like art. We’ve had Rakim, Nas and a few other emcees that can legitimately claim to be poetic when they rap in to that microphone. Personally, I found “Reloaded” to be the superior listening experience, but with “Marcberg” we saw that New York rap was far from dead – it saw a new name (to many) establish himself as an elite rhymer. Considering Marciano started his career in the 90s, it’s not often an emcee improves considerably as they age. Technically, you could argue the likes of R.A. The Rugged Man and Ghostface Killah are as refined as they’ll ever be, even Eminem is somebody I would consider has mastered his art. If you enjoy any of those artists, I’m pretty sure you’ll appreciate “Marcberg”, particularly if you found early Mobb Deep’s grim dourness beautiful on “The Infamous” and “Hell On Earth”. As street as “Marcberg” is though, you will find it more rewarding if you get a kick out of complex rhyme schemes and diverse vocabulary.
Roc Marciano may well be a rapper’s rapper, but he is also an underrated producer in his own right. The self-produced aspect that runs throughout “Marcberg” further enhances the cohesion and the belief that each beat was designed for Marciano to weave his words upon. Many modern emcees would discard the minimalist, often repetitive style of production that Marciano has crafted on “Marcberg” as unconventional, but it actually harks back to the days of RZA where a two second loop drills in to your sub-conscious while the lyrics flood your eardrums. Perhaps lacking accessibility, Marciano’s vivid language is the focus here and you won’t find many better lyricists that can combine street aesthetics with advanced rhyme schemes. The difference between Marciano and many other rappers that can “spit fire” is the guy drips class. In videos, he isn’t just lyrically sharp, but he looks as sharp as a ginsu. Not only does the guy school emcees, but he schools those with tacky tastes. If you enjoy 2 Chainz or Trinidad James, this album may sound alien, but this is materialism at its finest. After Jay-Z’s uber-rich lifestyle is once again served to us humble folk on a silver plate (or in my case, a Samsung phone with a cracked screen) – Marciano may have you questioning how he bankrolls such lavish behaviour.
That’s not to say that Marciano is lying on these songs, but having become a master of killing verses on other emcees tracks, he’s at least living comfortably. 2012’s “Reloaded” embodies the extravagant side of Marciano more than “Marcberg”, which finds itself amidst the dusty, filth-stricken streets of an “Illmatic” or “Dah Shinin'”. Esteemed company for sure, but where many artists falter by attempting to provide an album to take us back to the Golden Era, Marciano has crafted one that sounds like it was lifted from 1994. The album even begins similarly to Nas’ “Illmatic” with background chatter setting the scene for a rundown, pre-Giuliani New York. Where this record differs from Nas’ classic debut is that Marciano often just goes off on a tangent, dispersing rhymes with no real agenda other than to convince the listener to come on a journey through these streets where rhymes are bullets and Marci’s voice is an M60. I’ll go on record and state that if this was released in the mid-90s, there’s no denying “Marcberg” would have been shoulder-barging its way in to many Top 10 lists. Every track has quotable lyrics, and when you hear guns being described as the color of soy sauce, or how he’s got ki’s like gatekeepers, there really is an eloquence to the language being used:
“I said slow drag ’em, yeah, this is how you go platinum
Chrome magnum, rollin’ in my gold Aston
Blow past ’em, ask ’em cold smashin’
Rope and gag ’em, wrote classics, broke glasses
Closed caskets, foes asses get blasted
Sick bastards, think gashes over lashes
Molasses, which wig trashes, you’re plastic
Below average, tryin’ to come at this, savage
Black sabbath, maverick, Califat’s back faggot
Ten gallon hat, horseback gallop
From here to Dallas, my style is hard like callous
Most ya’ll rappers can toss my salad (bitch)” – “Raw Deal”
Musically, Roc provides an eery atmosphere throughout “Marcberg” with songs like “Snow” and “Don Shit” feeling like bottled danger. They are the most potent, and also the most accessible productions here because let’s face it, this hip hop isn’t going to get your girl twerking. For the more experienced rap listener, you’ll likely have heard the samples on “Hide My Tears”, “Jungle Fever” and “Ridin’ Around” elsewhere, but never this barebones. Where most producers chop up a sample, clean it up and speed the vocals up, Roc often leaves them untouched, adding to the songs’ rawness. There are moments where the standard, talky delivery is switched up to remind us of Roc’s earlier style; the first verse of “Ridin’ Around” being a prime example. The lack of features is refreshing because let’s face it, not many would want to be shown up alongside Roc but it could be argued that every song is just your standard hood shit, thematically at least, but there are occasions where Roc shows more focussed targets for his ammunition – namely “Jungle Fever”‘s inimitable take on interracial relationships.
As much as I’ve praised this record as a genuine return to the glory days of New York hip hop, it also suffers from some moments where it’s so rough it’s not ready. Despite blessing the majority of the beats on “Marcberg” with pain-addled guitar licks and drums so hard they’d raise Havoc’s eyebrows, some songs are a little too minimal for my liking. “Panic” feels undercooked, and will test your patience with its repetitive instrumental , whereas the first song “It’s A Crime” is rather monotonous despite its enthralling purpose as a scene-setter. Many proclaim this to be a modern-day classic, but I would say 2012’s “Reloaded” was the more complete album. Production was less erratic, the rhymes more refined and whilst it felt less like a traditional piece of rap music you could nod to, it was a stellar example of hip hop sounding like art – which I hadn’t heard the kind of in years. Nonetheless, “Marcberg” still remains a reminder of a bygone era and a refreshingly lyrical take on a stale genre. Give “Marcberg” a spin, knowing that somewhere in a parallel universe, hip hop would have remained this gritty and unabashed.