For decades, most of the best New York rap sounded like a slap in the head. New York is, of course, the city that invented rap, and its music has always contained multitudes. But from, say, 1984 — when sternum-crushing Rick Rubin drums took over from the live disco-funk bands who played on most rap records — brazen fuck-you intensity has ruled the city, to the point where it’s embedded in the character of New York rap. In a lot of senses, that’s still the case; Young M.A’s dominant 2016 banger “Ooouuu,” for instance, sounds very much like a slap in the head. But in the underground, something interesting has been happening lately. Right now, a lot of the best New York rap sounds like a plume of smoke slowly dissipating as it touches a plaster ceiling.
It’s there in insurgent voices like Hus Kingpin, talking tough shit over woozy, dusty instrumentals. It’s there in Westside Gunn and Conway, two harder-than-fuck Buffalo natives who do New York rap tougher than almost any actual New Yorkers but who do it on tracks that waft and bubble in fascinating ways. It’s there in Ka, the muttering griot and DIY role model who, fuck a New York Post headline, saves lives as a fire chief when he isn’t destroying your preconceptions of what New York rap even is. And it’s there in Roc Marciano, the guy who cleared a lane for all this stuff in the first place.
Roc Marciano has worked extensively with all of those other aforementioned rappers — Hus Kingpin, Westside Gunn, Conway, Ka — and usually in a generally mentor-ish capacity. He’s been around for a long time, breaking in in 1999 as a part of Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad crew, during the period when it was pretty clear that Flipmode was not going to be some ascendant rap dynasty. He didn’t leave much of an impression with that group. Really, he didn’t leave much of an impression until 2010, when he released Marcberg, his self-produced indie solo album. Marcberg was a quiet revelation, the sort of thing that slowly picks up word-of-mouth buzz once it gets under enough people’s skins. It’s the album that introduced the Roc Marciano style as we know it today: tingly and evocative instrumentals, dense and writerly lyrics about crime and luxury, barely any outside voices.
In the years after that album, as Roc Marci’s influence grew, he became more and more a part of the underground rap ecosystem, leaving guest verses across the underground spectrum and recording a whole 2011 EP with Alchemist and Oh No. His last album, 2013’s Marci Beaucoup, had dozens of guest verses from guys like Action Bronson and Freeway. But he’s been relatively quiet for a while, and the new Rosebudd’s Revenge represents a sort of back-to-basics move. Roc Marci only produced about half the beats himself, but the tracks from collaborators like Knxwledge and Don C are very much within Roc Marci’s aesthetic wheelhouse. And the only guests are Ka, whose raspy wisdom makes a great complement to Roc’s hardnosed money-talk, and Knowledge The Pirate, who is such a Roc Marci protégé that he rhymes “Hermes bikini” with “Lamborghini,” “martinis,” “linguini,” “shots to his beanie,” and “Trump tweeting quotes from Mussolini.”
This seems like a good place to get into Roc Marci’s lyrics, which are a whole other thing. Roc is a quiet master of specificity, and he has a way of sketching things out, in a few quick and precise strokes, in ways that let your mind fill in all the negative space. He’s also got gifts for internal rhymes, sudden and jarring tonal swifts, and sharp contrasts. For about 10 seconds this morning, I seriously considered writing a review that would consist entirely of quotes from the album. It would’ve gone something like this:
“Black Mozart, make the pussyhole fart.” “Pull out the pump, let it sneeze once. Put the axe to your back like a tree trunk.” “Pockets swell, I got the intel from golems out in Roswell. Now I got more rides than Jerry Seinfeld.” “Might hold up the CVS to catch Xanax. Hammers in the handrest, damn I’m fresh.” “My little midget bitch kick you in the dick.” “Shoulda known from the get-go I’d be Gordon Gekko. Don’t poke the hornet’s nest, that’s death’s threshold.” “The barrel smoke, my targets never out of focus / Me and my lady slow kiss, in the hot tub soaking / Michael Bolton, soft word spoken.” “Kiss the ring, million-dollar ding-a-ling swing. I’m just getting back in the swing of things. My jeans fit me like Springsteen.” “My shoes is worth a MF DOOM verse.” “Crack tore the family apart but it paid for my first apartment.” “Olive oil-colored horses is spoils of war, ten bricks of raw under the floorboards.” “The rap magnate, the jacket’s made of snake. The cash at a rapid pace, the way rabbits mate. Crack the safe, that’s an Accolade. Relax and get face from Christina Applegate.” “All my shirts made of chiffon. I’m not some nigga you can shit on.”
I could go on. I could go on very easily. Rosebudd’s Revenge, like every Roc Marciano album, is comprised almost entirely of those sorts of bon mots — those lines so impeccably worded that you want to type them all out yourself, just so you can start to understand how they work. And Roc Marci himself never oversells those lines. He just quietly intones them and then moves onto the next one. He raps everything in a gravelly monotone grumble, like he’s unimpressed with the lines he’s written, the ones that would impress anyone else. And he does it over tracks that crackle and steam with history, pulling not just the melodies but also the warm and organic textures of these old, obscure film scores and forgotten soul singles. Fans like to hold Roc Marci up as a defender of the fundamentalist values of New York hip-hop, but he’s spoken with great admiration of artists like Future and Young Thug. And you can hear why. Like those guys, his albums have a feeling to them, a near-impenetrable insularity that pulls listeners into his headspace rather than fighting for their attention. Rosebudd’s Revenge forces you to meet Roc Marciano where he is, and where he is is someplace great. The rest of New York rap might be catching up, but they’re not there yet.
Rosebudd’s Revenge is out now on Roc Marciano’s own Marci Enterprises label. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Blanck Mass’ beautifully apocalyptic World Eater.
• Grandaddy’s sunny reunion album Last Place.
• WHY?’s prickly, idiosyncratic indie-pop LP Moh Lhean.
• Sun Kil Moon’s bafflingly discursive double album Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood.
• Sondre Lerche’s smoothly introspective Pleasure.
• Cursive leader Tim Kasher’s solo LP No Resolution.
• Lusine’s dreamy, layered Sensorimotor.
• Temples’ approachably psychedelic Volcano.
• John Talabot/Axel Boman duo Talaboman’s debut The Night Land.
• David Bazan’s synthy, intense Care.
• Middle Children’s rootsy, melodic punk debut Earth Angel.
• Christine Leakey’s psych-folk ramble Wanderlust Wishing Well.
• Jessica Dennison + Jones’ twangy self-titled indie-popper.
• Palberta side project Horn Horse’s 28-song Lily On Horn Horse.
• Operator Music Band’s krautrock debut Puzzlephonics I & II.
• Sleaford Mods’ blustery, parochial English Tapas.
• Hot Chip frontman Alexis Taylor’s solo album Listen With(out) Piano.
• Bleached’s Can You Deal? EP.