How much is music worth — not a physical object associated with music, but music itself? The market has answered that question for us ruthlessly: Music is worth $10 a month, plus whatever your smartphone plan costs. Maybe it won’t be that way forever. Maybe the various digital companies in charge of streaming music to our phones will decide that that’s not enough, and maybe they’ll jack up their prices accordingly. But now that most of us are used to paying only that much, it’s already getting hard to ever imagine paying more. If you’re a consumer with no real need to feel connection to the people making the music — if you look at those people as simple generators of hooks and riffs, rather than as people with bills to pay — then this is a pretty sweet deal. But it’s increasingly becoming obvious that very, very few people can live on streaming royalties. And for the people within the underground-rap world who don’t tour too often, streaming will never be the answer. So a few people are trying to figure out different ways of handling this.
Some people are selling exclusivity. The most famous example, of course, would be the Wu-Tang Clan, who managed to fleece a dickface robber-baron market-plunderer for seven figures for the one copy of an album that I can’t imagine is any good. That whole sad saga reached its logical conclusion earlier this week, when a federal judge forced Martin Shkreli to cough up his one-of-a-kind copy of Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. (It might go up for auction, and if it does, it’ll be fascinating to see how much it fetches.) Other attempts have been slightly less grandiose. A few years ago, Nipsey Hussle sold 1,000 copies of his Crenshaw mixtape for $100 each. They sold out in less than 24 hours; Jay-Z famously bought 100 copies. Meanwhile, the New Jersey underground enigma Mach-Hommy regularly charges hundreds for Bandcamp downloads, and somebody has to keep buying those. By those standards, $30 for a new Roc Marciano album seems downright reasonable.
Now: $30 for an album is too much. It would’ve been too much during the peak Sam Goody era, when I would regularly drop $16 on CDs that I wouldn’t even end up liking. But if an album is great, why shouldn’t it cost a lot of money? How much enjoyment have you gotten from your favorite album? Can you put a number on it? If you knew you would get $30 worth of enjoyment out of an album, wouldn’t that be a fair price? I’ve been thinking about this since last week, when Roc Marciano came out with his new album, RR2: The Bitter Dose, an album that isn’t streaming anywhere and that will cost you $30 to own.
Now: That $30 isn’t for some beautiful embossed vinyl copy of RR2. As of now, there’s no way to get a physical copy of the album. Your $30 gets you the MP3s and nothing else. And Roc hasn’t said that the album will never appear on a streaming service. His website merely promises that the album will be download-only “until (and if) Roc makes it available in other formats.” So: Is it worth your $30 to hear the album now, when you could presumably wait around a bit and hear it for free later? This is the same question I ask myself everytime a cool-looking straight-to-VOD action movie comes out. Do I pay $7 to rent Braven or Accident Man when I know they’re going to be on Netflix in four months? I do. I pay for those motherfuckers every time. And I almost never regret it. (Braven and Accident Man are both really good!)
I was maybe five seconds away from dropping the $30 on RR2 when a press copy showed up in my inbox. But I would’ve paid for the album, and I wouldn’t have regretted it. As a rapper, Roc Marciano does a very particular thing, and there’s a good chance that you already know whether you like it or not. I happen to like it a lot. RR2 is the sequel to Rosebudd’s Revenge, one of my favorite rap albums of 2017, and it’s very much in the same mold. It’s also in the same mold as Marcberg, the album that Marciano released way back in 2010, reviving his own career and helping to shape the new sound of underground rap in the process. Before Marcberg, Marciano was one New York underground rapper among many. He’d spent some early-’00s time with Busta Rhymes’ old Flipmode Squad group, but that and a dollar wouldn’t buy you a Metrocard. So he made this gorgeous self-produced album, muttering intricately worded threats over muted, flickering soul samples. In the process, he turned classic New York rap into paranoid, ominous mood music. Plenty of others followed, and suddenly New York’s underground was thriving again.
Since Marcberg, Marciano has remained in that zone, regularly cranking out albums of free-associative murder-talk and eerie minor-key melodies. As a rapper, Marciano stands out from his peers. He’s flashier than Ka and more peaceful than Westside Gunn and Conway, but that doesn’t mean he’s flashy or peaceful. His music turns hardness into something evocative; it sounds like Proustian memories of concrete hallways and face-slashings, dancing just out of reach of the conscious mind. Marciano walks these strange, uncanny lines; he can threaten to slap the teeth out of your mouth over music that will tickle your brainstem. He’s a gunfight in a Wong Kar-Wai movie. He’s an American original. His music is always worth your attention. It’s worth your money, too.
On RR2, Marciano has German engines that purr like leopards. His dingos eat you whole; you should find work at Home Depot. He opened your head, and brain matter fell on the Pro-Keds. Shit he’s doodling with the pen cause the room to get humid. This is candy for kids; he’s got the jammy up near your pancreas. He wishes you pussies would say his name and get your frame flamed. You stand there enamored; he’s obviously handsome and well-mannered. He raps with his nose up, with his tux and his glass of mimosa. He’s giving you an expensive spanking for trying to enter his inner sanctum while he’s spending Franklins. He’s got stories; bring marshmallows.
RR2 isn’t quite as strong as Rosebudd’s Revenge, but it’s still pretty easily the best new rap album I’ve heard in 2018. Even when Marciano is taking it easy on the punchlines, he remains relentlessly quotable. (See the above paragraph.) Marciano spends some of the album fucking around and having fun. One song, “Bedspring King,” has a beat made from the sound of squeaking bedsprings, just like Trillville’s “Some Cut.” Another, “Happy Endings,” finds Marciano attempting half-seriously to sing soulfully, which is not a skill that comes naturally to him. But the album’s not a departure. It’s one more album of ice-cold cinematic New York rap ambiance, the latest in what I hope will be a very long string. Is another album like that, coming just a year after the slightly superior last one, worth your $30? I submit to you that it is. In fact, I submit to you that it’s damn near priceless.
1. Valee – “Vlone”
The beat sounds like Boards Of Canada making strip-club music. Valee’s boasting about his “expensive feet” is so casual, so downright uninterested, almost like he expects you to be impressed that he even bothered to rap at all. And you should be impressed! Nobody else sounds like this. This kid matters.
2. Lil Wayne – “Vizine”
Lil Wayne just rhymed “Rothstein” with “offspring” and “golf swing” in the chest-out preacher-boom delivery that he uses sometimes. He cares again! We should throw a party.
3. Phonte – “So Help Me God”
“Y’all carseats must be rear-facing” is a pretty great line from a weathered, tested rap veteran. Phonte’s new album No News Is Good News is full of grown-folks real-talk, and that’s great. But it’s also just as great when Phonte cuts loose in his own relaxed, conversational, self-assured way.
4. Height Keech – “Computer Rocker”
I know this guy. Fifteen years ago, I used to see this guy all the time; we hung out in the same social circles and went to the same warehouse shows. But that’s not why he’s here. He’s here because I like the way he raps over chopped-up shards of psych-rock guitar, like that was the only way to rap.
5. Suspect – “One Way” (Feat. Jesse James Solomon & Skepta)
I love how British rap music can retain some of the feverish immediacy of grime while still being rap rather than grime, translating that hectic intensity into an ominous slow crawl.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
I hurt myself today
to see if I still feel pic.twitter.com/IYiJe4TF9U
— Brandon Stroud (@MrBrandonStroud) March 1, 2018