Joel Biswas seen you freezing like a bum, eating out the dump.
Roc Marciano is rap’s supreme dark horse. A revivalist turned innovator, he’s spent the better part of the last decade finding new, diamond-sharp facets in the crime-noir tropes of nineties New York rap, honing a persona so refined it’s as if he’s channeling some universal hustler consciousness. In his hands, technical prowess is a canvas for the baroque — cinematic details pulsate with fetishistic power and narrative is a slippery conceit in thrall to the most memorable study in super-villainy since the talented Mr. Ripley. When he raps, he isn’t so much protagonist as he is primary cosmic force in a darkly alluring crime saga.
After the dusty underground feel of his two preceding Rosebudd’s Revenge albums, his seventh full length Behold A Dark Horse is the first record he’s made that sounds entirely of its moment. He’s expanded his palette with high profile co-signs and shiny production assists before on projects like Marci Beaucoup and the The Pimpire Strikes Back but rarely with the relish or polish seen here. Taken as a whole, it is the most razor-sharp rendering of the Roc Marciano persona to date and a conscious reach for long-overdue recognition as an all-time East Coast great.
That’s not to say that this is a radical departure from a finely tooled aesthetic that’s made him one of the most gifted technicians of the decade. Opener “The Horse’s Mouth” features desolate strings and barely-there kicks that recall his seminal sophomore album Reloaded. We’re reminded that he’s “cut from a good stock… the product’s either good or its not” before he exhorts pretenders “to climb down from the tree-house”. “Congo” is a well-executed hit as Roc, sporting Yves Saint Laurent and Kevlar, intones “I ain’t done finessing/ this a test-run/ hit you in the neck and then leave the gun in the restaurant” over jittery bongos, piano and revving motorcycles.
“Amethyst” is a mournful portrait of the don as spectral presence; “I disappear like Houdini, Ma/ In the Blue DB9/ a smooth and easy ride/ dreamy like CGI” – less a persona than the aura of luxury cars and whistling bullets. “Samson and Delilah” is an orgy of flute and strings that kicks off with Roc musing on how the “clip under the tool look like a half moon”. It’s vintage Marciano – virtuoso extended metaphors, full of blink-and-you-miss-it wordplay and immaculately choreographed violence. No one paints free-associative pictures better.
With the aid of a few memorable guest spots and production credits, Roc’s vantage point and delivery get even crisper. “Diamond Cutters” sees Roc delivers defiant thug parables over a swirling synth line and makes it absolutely clear that “I’m speaking on me/ but in the third person” before Black Thought rips the second verse while keeping “a non-believer choking on Cohiba smoke”. “Trojan Horse” comes closest to pure boom-bap as one-time mentor Busta Rhymes delivers the kind of adrenalized dancehall riff that once made him a ubiquitous guest, only with a lot more references to perico.
“Fabio” is the undeniable album highlight. Alchemist provides a sultry bassline for the first verse before flipping a doomy soul loop that gives Roc room to stretch out his cadence for the second. Fellow Queensbridge native Q-Tip memorably produces album closer “Consigliere” which concludes this fiery album just as it began – with Roc holding court in the corner booth at P.F. Chang’s, pressing his case for being an all-time great, pointing with his fork for emphasis, before swerving the bill.
The result is Roc’s most focused and cohesive work since Reloaded and a statement of principal at a time when the aesthetic Roc has long championed finds new adherents in the likes of Griselda Records and Mayhem Lauren. Like Pusha T’s Daytona, it’s a crisp, focused and exhilarating nod to the kind of defining genre statement that last mattered around the time Jay-Z dropped American Gangster. And with a third full-length release set to drop this year in collaboration with DJ Muggs, Marciano is at long last poised to go from underground champ to true stalking horse of the East Coast legends whose legacy he burnishes.