The Anniversary

Reloaded Turns 10


Blaxploitation movies were seductive – both for their sensuality and their crusades. Pam Grier’s afro was a poster for ghetto girls and boys. Watching a Black woman avenge the white man’s filth in her community incited an expansion of the Black womanist movement. In Yvonne Sims’ 2006 book Women Of Blaxploitation: How The Black Action Film Heroine Changed American Popular Culture, Pam Grier explains this phenomenon: “All across the country, a lot of women were Foxy Brown and Coffy. They were independent, fighting to save their families not accepting rape or being victimized… This was going on all across the country. I just happened to do it on film. I don’t think it took any great genius or great imagination. I just exemplified it, reflecting it to society.”

Ms. Grier, as usual, is spot-on about this. Blaxploitation was about pimps, private detectives, and foul-mouthed hustlers that subverted whitey’s capitalist and violent planet for their own thrilling life of crime. Or, in the case of the heroines: It was about nurturers realizing their community was being strangled by the hands of wicked white men. These films were a remedy for Black audiences – a counteractive medium for the sterile portrayals of Black people that were in Hollywood at the height of the Blaxploitation era. It was never didactic or boring. Instead, they combined pulp fiction and sexualized masculinity and femininity with a journalistic view of what was happening in the ghetto. The greatness of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was that it wasn’t a lesson. Sweetback was a sex worker with a large penis. While Mike Nichols was making the grim Carnal Knowledge, Black directors were making movies about inequality – but for Black people. In a world that had written off Black men as savages set on raping white women, the response to Blaxploitation was huge. Not everyone agreed – the NAACP argued that Blaxploitation characters were harmful – but the criticism was strikingly offbase. These movies were art.

Rap albums owe a lot to Blaxploitation films – especially the ones starring Dolemite and Petty Whetstraw’s Rudy Ray Moore. On “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang,” which needs no introduction, Snoop Dogg raps, “Pimpin’ hoes and clockin’ a grip like my name was Dolemite.” You get the feeling that these rappers are attempting to subvert the white window of acceptable content as well. The Chronic took its style from Blaxploitation in a few ways – yes, including the misogyny. Dr. Dre’s debut takes trashy pulp (“Dre Day”) and real-life police violence and consequences (“The Day Niggaz Took Over”) and blends them together like a smoothie.

Before Roc Marciano dropped Reloaded, which turns 10 years old on Sunday, the Blaxploitation genre hadn’t felt like a part of hip-hop for a while. Ringtones had turned New York hip-hop from ultra-serious to unserious. Skilled emcees with no personality – such as Maino, Saigon, or Papoose – were the rappers that fans were hoping would become the next Jay-Z. Reloaded, the follow-up to 2010s very good Marcberg, ended up restoring the feeling, creating a new subgenre for hip-hop classicists. In the same way that Blaxploitation became a medium for Black filmmakers and actors to flip stereotypes, Roc Marciano’s music upended the norms of traditionalist rap. Removing the drums, he created an ambiance that functioned like a new subway route. On “Tek To A Mack,” Reloaded’s first song, he delivers bars about fashion and his street acumen with sweat-free cool. To see Roc was to see a world-weary pimp. His words are deployed academically, like he’s teaching poetry to Black boys. See the opening bar: “Style’s wavy/ Lazy eye like Tracy McGrady, deliver like an 80-pound baby.” He wears a mink coat to go with the scar on his face.

Roc Marciano wasn’t discovered by formalists based on an RSS whim. The Hempstead writer was drifting in and out of the business, between Flipmode Squad and the U.N., the group he tried to create after leaving Busta Rhymes’ group. He was very good, but nothing stuck critically until Marcberg. See the second verse of “Tek To The Mak”: “I love the art, but it’s a business/ D’s tryna pin us/ Cause what I do with the pen is stupendous.” This is for the bare-knuckled purists, men who wanted to hear sword swallowers rap over pristine and alluring production. Roc’s voice is suggestive while dropping ironclad bars. He never raises his voice; he’s controlled yet as compelling as possible. “Flash Gordon,” produced by the underground auteur the Alchemist, begins with a Barry White sample. “Hey baby,” the burly soul singer says, while Roc complains about rappers “channeling Pac” and “high top Ewings.” The nature of politics in show business is talked about too: “Gorgeous hitmen escort the vixen.”

Roc Marci brought back stoic masculinity to New York. Though it developed an extensive reach, his music is entirely for an audience of men who discuss business at their harmless seeming fronts. In an era where rap was decidedly more colorful and homogenized, Roc was able to revive a bygone omertá. Similar to Ghostface Killah’s “Malcolm” – a song about how “sodomized” the Black community was – “Not Told” is how the old code, the one that was on the streets before Gotti broke the rules, should always prevail. The sample begins with a woman preaching about who was really on the streets and who was just a poser. “But the niggas went to prison and you see them out here. This that and the third: They know who they are. They’re homo thugs. I call them homo thugs. You not thugging. I got no respect for them. Cause you don’t tell. The game’s not to be told.”

(All over this record, Roc Marci has a tendency to be undoubtedly homophobic. It was a joke about his music for years: If Eminem was a homicidal maniac, then Roc Marciano was an arbitrary decider of what masculinity should be. “Homo swag” is chided as a negative on “Tek To A Mack.” Homophobia has always been an undeniable component of his music, but his recent album The Elephant Man’s Bones does not contain his usual anti-gay slurs, suggesting Roc has perhaps turned over a new leaf.)

There’s times on this record where Roc sounds like he caught a flow from the Allah that Wu-Tang worshiped. Like Supreme Clientele before it, Reloaded exhibits a love for language, how it can be bent and twisted for vernacular and slang. The bonus track “Two Zips” is excellent: “Niggas is hit up/ Fuck penthouse, pin-ups, pimp cups been filled up/ Slide dick in Brazllian cuts buds, bust nuts.” “76” is based on a beat that is so raw it could invoke a single teardrop – akin to looking at the stars at night. “Your limbs hang out of thread like yarn,” Roc raps. “I’m the next big thing/ Chickenheads cling, the bedspring king/ Run the ring, my head is on top of the pyramid.”

The production on this record is operatic. “Death Parade” has a doorbell sounding-piano. Few beats sound as eclectic as “Peru,” as Roc croons hilariously: “Lick the poonani, Benz big body/ Aphrodite, ass is mighty/ The chrome 25 shiny.” The finale, “The Man,” is victorious; Westside Gunn’s “Lucha Bros” clearly takes from that style. Roc has the lifestyle of Tony Soprano with one of his various mistresses: “My lady waited on the counter with a towel/ While I slang a Rick James banger in the shower.” I don’t suggest you play Roc Marciano for your wifey – but if she was real, she’d want to have sex to this song too. Sequels are not supposed to be better than the original. But for Roc, it was preordained.

Blaxploitation and Reloaded both created a new style of expression. Just as the movies’ depictions of pimps and hustlers spawned imitators like Quentin Tarantino, Roc Marciano opened a second door for brutes with style. He’s owed his flowers. His induction. When you see Freddie Gibbs and the Alchemist being nominated for Grammys, you can thank Roc Marci (by way of Prodigy) for that. When Griselda – who like everyone else, worked hard to get here – did events with Virgil, you can trace it back to Roc Marciano’s interest in high fashion. There are now more of his disciples making vital music than ever, even though none of them have ever matched this witty and dynamic hour. In a moment that has moved me to tears, Roc begins “The Man” by rapping, “I turned my pain into power” — transforming family curses into musical genius by sheer will of the pen.

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