“I like to go all over the town, man. I hear my name ring like a bell, you know. Ding, dong. [...] You get a whole lot of money out of it, but really, it’s all about the respect.”
The crime boss strolls into a low-lit restaurant on the corner of a quiet New York street, the leather soles of his dress shoes tapping as he makes his way to his always-reserved booth. Both he and his lady companion are wearing full-length coats made out of some exotic fur; not mink or chinchilla, those are for the nouveau riche. We’re talking animals on the Endangered Species list. She’s reminiscent of Ginger from Casino. He, naturally, plays the role of Sam Rothstein in better times; poised and confident, but too aware of his surroundings to be truly comfortable. You never know when you’ll have to knock the grape off someone’s fruitcake.
"Roc Marciano’s enveloping 'Reloaded' takes the cinematic plight of the mob leader to stunning heights."
Even if you’re only marginally familiar with the mechanics of gangster rap personae, you’ve surely come across the hip-hop-album-as-crime-syndicate-movie trope. The leading men of each paint themselves as quietly charismatic leaders, connoisseurs of the finer things the world has to offer, ruthlessly pragmatic businessmen. The value of human life doesn’t quite measure up to the money that can be made off of a kilo of cocaine, a robbery of a rival, or sending a young lady to stroll the avenue in thigh-length boots. To say a slew of rappers have gotten endless mileage out of this writing device would be a hysterical understatement, but compelling work is still being carved from this template. Roc Marciano’s enveloping Reloaded-- for this contributor’s money, the greatest rap album of a year teeming with truly incredible rap albums-- takes the cinematic plight of the mob leader to stunning heights.
Reloaded serves as the titular sequel to 2010’s sleeper masterpiece Marcberg, an LP seeped in a grit and lawlessness that felt set in the dangerous times of pre-Giuliani-era New York, featuring Marciano weaving intricate, tightly-wound poetry over dusty soul samples and thumping drum loops. It’s impossible to discuss Marciano as a rapper without mentioning his word-drunk verses, each a marvel of internal rhyme schemes and stream-of-consciousness imagery. The streets are dirty, but everything else is of the finest quality. The women, the cars, the tailored suits, the piping-hot entrees that suggest Marciano is vying for a spot as contributing editor for a hypothetical Action Bronson food blog. While his debut painted a grim portrait of a mostly emotionless killer/dealer/pimp with a stable of underlings to drop bodies off in Wyoming and hookers offering to drink his urine, it was delivered with panache and a virtuoso’s attention to craft.
Marcberg wasn’t a myopic record by any means, but Reloaded pushes from the gate with a widescreen focus. Opener “Tek to a Mack” alone is densely packed enough with detail to fill an hour-long episode of your favorite post-The Wire inner-city crime drama. Marciano peeks at his watch as Coleman, his chauffeur, grips the wheel. He slips on oven mitts while cooking cocaine. He scoffs at your “homo swag.” There’s a singularity of vision and a wide enough reference base to namedrop both Tracy McGrady and Lou Ferrigno. The tools were certainly present before, but now Marciano is fully comfortable combining the inner-city turmoil of John Singleton with the stream-of-consciousness imagery of Terrence Malick and artful ultra-violence of Nicholas Winding Refn. It would be truly surprising if Drive wasn’t a perpetual staple in Marciano’s Netflix Instant queue.
The increased breadth of creativity isn’t only evident in the rhymes here, but also on the album’s fifteen beats. Marciano helmed Marcberg alone, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe the same of the sequel regardless of the (minimal) number of extra contributors, who each fall in line with Marciano’s bleak, sample-driven aesthetic. Most surprising is Q-Tip, whose beat for “Thread Count” is a study in how to make a captivating instrumental without a forefront melody. Noted Marciano collaborator-- and easily 2012’s MVP among beat-makers-- The Alchemist contributes highlights “Pistolier” and “Deeper,” the latter of which hosts a hypnotizing, unintelligible vocal sample. (The two guest rappers on the album also deliver sterling performances, particularly Ka and his scene-stealing subtlety on “Not Told.”) But as with his last album, this is Marciano’s show: “Death Parade” approaches RZA-in-’94-level understated sampling ingenuity, while the sequel for Marcberg’s “Thug’s Prayer” is a psychedelic opus that disintegrates into original’s loop and wraps up in under two minutes. Though the beats aren’t as intricately constructed as the verses, that is by design, as it decides which of the two is worth paying more attention to.
In another sly nod to classic New York hip hop of the '90s, album closer “The Man” puts stinging, dramatic strings in the foreground, much like “North Star (Jewels),” the final track of Raekwon’s all-time great Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. But “North Star” was a scene painted in loss and bloodshed, and the lyrical content of “The Man” is clearly displayed in its title; it’s a celebration of the self as a badass, a snapshot of the drug-dealer-as-rock-star dichotomy. It’s a curious way to end a record so steeped in its own darkness, it’s the wink from the bad guy-- or, better yet, a scene of Rick James karaoke-- as he rides off into the sunset with the cops poking around the scenes of various crimes. In spite of his reliance on well-worn gangsta rap themes, Roc Marciano tinkers with the expectations of his audience just as well as he satisfies them. Nobody ever expects the sequel of a classic to be even better than the original.
Roc Marciano's Reloaded is out now via Decon. Stream it at Spin.