Here are the things I remember about the Flipmode Squad, Busta Rhymes’ late-’90s rap crew: Rah Digga, the female rapper with the supremely tough and husky voice, who went on to a pretty decent solo career years after she came close to bodying Lauryn Hill on the Fugees’ own “Cowboys.” Spliff Star, the antic hypeman and excellent dancer who went on to become Busta’s human shadow, a position he still holds. Lord Have Mercy and Rampage The Last Boy Scout, who had funny names. (Spliff Star also had a funny name.) The “Cha Cha Cha” video, in which they dressed like mariachis and matadors and clamped roses between their teeth. That’s it. That’s all I remember. I sure don’t remember Roc Marciano, the Long Island rapper who broke in with the crew in 1999 and spent the next decade-plus lurking in the New York rap-scene periphery. I clearly wasn’t paying enough attention. A little more than two years ago, Marciano released the self-produced indie album Marcberg, with no PR blitz and barely any guest rappers. That album, his solo debut, introduced a language-drunk master, muttering intricately worded head-smack threats under his breath over spectral boom-bap that flickered and smoldered evocatively. It was a quiet revelation: This guy had always been there, right under our noses? And now he’s back with the follow-up, and it’s somehow even better. We’d do well not to sleep this time around.
“We Ill,” from Roc’s new Reloaded, has a track with barely any drums. Instead, there’s a disembodied female jazz-singer purr, doo-doo-dooing languidly across measures while a piano line subsides and returns like tides and a stand-up bass indolently plunks away. It’s rhythmic, but it’s not a beat, not as such. It’s a barely-there suggestion of one. And over that track, his own, Marciano offers stuff like this: “Thick pitbull jaw-lock / I’m a warlock / My lines go for ten a pop like orange tops / Fuck you niggas with a horse’s cock / I’m taking mines off the top / Whores watch as we board the yacht like George C. Scott / Ciroc / Five drops of olive oil in the wok / Presidential watch, call it Barack / Black face shit with the invisible locks / To get you shot, it’s like the Hitchcock plot.” And then we hear a bunch of silencer sound-effects.
New York rap has a grand history of free-associative, impressionist tough-talk: Kool G. Rap, Ghostface Killah, DOOM, Cam’ron. Action Bronson’s been doing it excellently lately. So Marciano’s not doing stuff like this in a vacuum. But listening to Reloaded, it feels like he is. The way he delivers lines like those, it’s like he’s lazily grabbing stray thoughts out of the air, giving barely any attention to flow or meter, the sounds of the words themselves guiding his voice. And it’s a great New York rap voice: A smoke-hardened matter-of-fact rasp that never expresses anything in the way of emotions. Marciano doesn’t much bother with choruses, and he never devotes an entire song to a single concept. The ideas are time-honored traditional rap stuff: Guns, drugs, money, clothes, sex, lyrical ability, general animosity. But they’re rendered in powerfully sharp, artful, evocative language: “Richard Gere with the gear, Ric Flair.” When he talks about violence, he does it with just a couple of microscopically focused lines (“I’m out of town, running with hounds / Dumping the Cal, kick up a dust pile”), letting your mind fill in the rest, while he’s still on to talking about the leather in his shoes. And the music is just as spaced-out and blurry as the lyrics and the delivery — Irregularly-arranged splashes of guitar and Rhodes and cymbal, with plenty of space to let Roc’s voice wander. It’s like Roc removed most of the boom and bap from boom-bap, using only the haunted jazz and soul loops left over. The cumulative effect is still hard-ass NY rap music, but done in a vague and faraway style — Mobb Deep through a prism.
Roc’s more prominent now than when he made Marcberg, and though he produced the vast majority of Reloaded himself, he also gets a couple of beats from famous friends Alchemist and Q-Tip. But hearing the album, you wouldn’t know that he’s left his bedroom studio in the two years since Marcberg. If anything, he’d traveled deeper into his own headspace. And so Reloaded resounds as a powerful mood-piece, a staticy transmission from a murmuring mind. And if a guy capable of an album like this was lurking under our noses for years, imagine how many great artists we haven’t even bothered to notice yet.
Reloaded is out now on Decon.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Crystal Castles’ dark and foreboding (III).
• How to destroy angels_’ spare and inward-looking An omen_ EP.
• Soundgarden’s long-awaited studio comeback King Animal.
• Sufjan Stevens’s holiday-music EP box set Silver & Gold: Songs For Christmas.
• Guided By Voices’ third album of 2012 The Bears For Lunch.
• The Weeknd’s mixtape repackaging Trilogy.
• El Perro Del Mar’s bubbling Swede-pop LP Pale Fire.
• The Babies’ lo-fi sophomore effort Our House On The Hill.
• Lust For Youth’s hard, synth-driven postpunker Growing Seeds.
• School Of Seven Bells’ Ghostory bonus EP Put Your Sad Down.
• Neneh Cherry & The Thing’s remix collection The Cherry Thing Remixes.
• Flourishing’s bleak New York metal EP Intersubjectivity.
• The all-star Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 soundtrack.
• The bonus-packed “Paradise Edition of Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die.