Steven Louis is wishing everyone a Happy Hondadays and a safe Toyotathon.
The most revealing song from Roc Marciano’s latest master work might be the album’s minute-long outro, in which an impassioned Max B monologue is laid over a Roc-produced flute suite. “It don’t matter who’s here,” the Boss Don says. “We all dying. So that makes us all equal, because everybody’s leaving, whether ya like it or not. But who’s gonna leave the biggest legacy? Who gonna leave the energy out here?”
If you’re like me, and consider Max B one of the most compelling artists of this nascent century, you know very well that the man isn’t here now, but caged in New Jersey’s Bergen County Jail. The Harlem rapper went into prison in 2009 with a buzzy northeast underground following and an ugly contract dispute with Jim Jones; he’s since been honored on wax by Jay Z, Kanye West and almost every other rapper worth mentioning this decade. French Montana will have a G5 to take Biggavell from the pen to the penthouse. Max was eminently concerned with his own legacy, but that legacy grew wings only once he wasn’t able to control it.
It sounds like Roc Marciano is similarly obsessed with his legacy, how he’ll be remembered in the years and decades to come. On Marcielago, it’s coming from place of nobility rather than vanity or self-indulgence. He’s a first-ballot hall-of-famer in a sport with no such honor. He grew up with the Flipmode Squad and rapped along Pete Rock with The U.N. The auteur then rang in this decade with Marcberg, a self-produced solo album of clever, dense and claustrophobic raps over disjointed blues samples; he ends it sharing the mic with Westside Gunn, whose Griselda superteam just perfected that formula and made it both festival-viable and goddamn sample-free. Roc Marciano loves the genre so much that he wants to compete with every last person in it. He seems to sincerely, even boastfully value the art that he’s making, and Marcielago is offered accordingly.
So yes, Marcielago is an album invested in legacy, but it’s not looking backward by any means. No montages or call-backs, no waxing nostalgic, no ham-assed reflections. Marcielago is another statement on just how fuckin’ correct this dude comes, both on the mic and behind the boards. One Kentavious Caldwell-Pope reference notwithstanding, this project probably could fit in any juncture of Roc’s career. It’s just another, welcomed reminder that Marci is an all-time great, one whose swagger and prowess can forever enchant, and one whose influence continues to metastasize.
“Can’t be sniffin’ ye if you got a pimp to pay, if I’m insensitive just say,” the New York emcee says on “Choosin Fees.” No punches are held. The whole album is cushioned with warm soul flips and dusty piano flips, and Roc Marciano is listed as the sole producer on 12 of Marcielago’s 15 tracks. He’s a reliable narrator but a truly chaotic storyteller. It’s grimey, irreverent and head-spinning. Every song weighs a ton, every verse thick and grimly hilarious. The shooters come from Port-au-Prince, not French Lick. He’s eating veal, not chicken cutlet. Thirty-six ounces makes a legend. The root of all evil is still the loot.
Of course, when it comes to the wicked intellectualism that the self-proclaimed “Dark Horse” has mastered, a few of these songs up the ante. Roc remarks that the Alchemist-assisted “Saw” sounds “like the reaper’s in the room…last days shit,” watching the gates of Hell spring open while chiefing a PCP-dipped cigarette. “Puff Daddy” skulks with a nightmarish marching rhythm, and the song is almost stolen by a snarling Cook$ reporting live from the dope spot. On “Ephesians,” Ka, everyone’s favorite public servant, is floating through Brownsville and snatching entire souls. “For the filth that grew me, built immunity to deadly venom/somebody might not know the right rites of passage if I never pen ’em,” he raps. “When you get aggravated by all that fabrication, come fuck with me.” Shit, I’ll sign up for that right now. Marcielago is firmly Roc’s show, but his featured guests offer tremendous support.
My favorite song on the project, however, is probably “I.G.W.T.,” in which Roc raps his absolute ass off and summons holy ghosts to convene around the piano. It’s just him, rhymes and wisecracks wandering without percussion. All we got is us, Marciano explains, but it’s delivered as if the man himself is a plurality, a multitude of minds and souls trying to explain this whole damn existence before the next 32. Real rap, ripples in the river. “We make a lot to get comfy, but money’s not my God.”
Roc Marciano is still one of the best lyricists alive and one of the most valuable observers of our increasingly-odd present. He’s telling you to give him the flowers while he can still smell them, and it’s not a question or a request. It’s not draped in nostalgia or bona-fides. It’s transactional: the man will shatter your nervous system with the bars, so give your props accordingly. Roc’s latest album plays with a timeless, soulful quality, but it’s very much a reaction to the turn of another decade in which hip-hop, with its ever-diverging tributaries, is the most popular sound in the world. Right now that forthcoming decade feels rife with myopic uncertainty and pure conjecture, but it’s also hopefully the decade in which Max B is free, finally enjoying that legacy built long ago.