Album Review: Roc Marciano – Reloaded

Posted: November 11, 2012 in Album Review, Best of 4th Q 2012, Hip Hop
Tags: , , , , , , ,

In 2012 Roc Marciano is the slickest motherfucker on the planet, but it wasn’t always that way. Despite over ten years perfecting his craft as a member of Flipmode Squad, The UN, (interesting situations that he thankfully never bats an eye at lyrically) and as a solo artist, when Roc dropped Marcberg in 2010, he was just getting around to telling his story to rap fans.  Marcberg was an unequivocably strong testament, proving that a New York rapper with ties to 90’s NYC rap could make a legitimate classic minimalistic boom-bap sample-based rap album over a decade removed from that era.  Many considered Marcberg a throwback masterpiece, and there were obvious elements of a hustler’s crack era nostalgia, but those who classified it as a successful 90’s themed boom-bap record did miss the point a bit.  There had been literally thousands of unsuccessful 90’s NYC throwback albums over from ’05 through ’10, but with Marcberg Roc somehow managed to create a distinct artistic statement.  Entirely produced and written by Roc – aside from one guest shot from Metal Clergy cohort Ka (a pattern Ka would mirror on his second album Grief Pedigree) – it was marked by a stark and dusty minimalism sonically and the words of a slick talking hustler with the unique ability to paint crystal clear imagery and illuminate his own set of Scarface dreams.  Roc wasn’t merely reminiscing about the 90’s nor was he trying to relive them in 2010, he was narrating his own blaxploitation flick set nebulously in the crack era.  The story line was one of criminality, street hustling, the pimp game, and turf wars.

At the time, underground New York rap fans treated Roc as a savior for all that they held dear.  There is little doubt that the impact of Marcberg energized not only a dormant fanbase, but the likes of Ka, Action Bronson, Meyhem Lauren, Troy Ave, and Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire directly or indirectly as it lended credence once again to the viability of New York as a significant player in the rap game and brought new hope that independent artists from New York could still make impactful records in the vein of 90’s classics by maintaining their own artistic visions and utilizing production that alluded to the bygone era while bringing its own inspiring wrinkles.  Although Roc clearly aspired to be the man (“Don Shit“), there was something slightly resigned in his tone throughout most of the album.  Marcberg was littered with stories of the hustle, war, and struggle from someone who had clawed tooth and nail to get everything he had in the game, a documentary of the American Dream for those with thug prayers and Scarface aspirations.  Most of Marcberg‘s imagery was set in the trenches, not from the parapets

While the basic formula on Reloaded remains the same – minimalistic production, slick rhymes, tales of the pimp game, and memoirs of the crack era – it’s obvious that many things have changed around Roc, starting with his tax bracket.  As Roc states with the album’s opening line on “Tek to a Mack,” it’s clear that this time he’s “back for the crown, baby” and soon acknowledges “memories of being broke are now distant.”  Roc has replaced the Datsun from “Ridin’ Around” with a Porsche, the language of hustle, struggle, and grit with a vocabulary of excess, fashion, boats, jets, and fine women.  Whereas Marcberg was rooted in the depths of the struggle, Reloaded predominantly floats amid the rarefied air of rap’s decadent stratosphere.  The change in vantage point makes sense, after all when Roc dropped Marcberg it was a bold artistic statement, a shockingly refined solo debut LP from an artist who had struggled to get a foothold in the industry for over a decade, and although he had earned some critical and fan acclaim, he had gained seemingly little ground in the process.  Two year’s later, he’s added a nearly universally acclaimed scene saving album, he has a solid argument (probably the most solid argument) for placement at the top of the New York rap game, he’s frequently provides one of the most sought after guest spots in the game, and he’s managed to show an incredible work ethic – dropping undeniable loose gems on a seemingly weekly basis.

Other than maybe Kendrick Lamar, it’s hard to think of an artist who had more pressure to perform and deliver a classic or near classic album in 2012.  A weak follow-up to Marcberg would’ve brought questions about Marciano’s prospects for longevity as a solo artist, but more importantly it would’ve opened up his spot as something for other aspiring and rising New York independents to gun for.  Nevertheless, despite the plethora of options behind the boards for Roc these days – frequent collaborators Alchemist, Arch Druids, Q-Tip, Ray West, or probably anyone else he would ask – Roc wisely gives those four talented acts the option to drop a combined five tracks on Reloaded and handles production duties on the remaining ten cuts himself.  Just as he’s abandoned much of the language of tribulation in favor of a vocabulary of affluence, he’s selected generally lusher fuller loops into his sample selection to add a new dimension of power to his musicWhile Marcberg, was certainly comfortable taking some risks behind the boards, it’s sparseness gave Marciano a bit of a safe zone in which to operate – a place where Roc could maximize the attention he garnered through his vivid image inducing syllable acrobatics.  There are plenty of moments of similar sparseness on Reloaded, but there are also joints like “Pistolier,” “76,” “20 Guns,” “The Man,” and “Tek to a Mac,” moments where weaker emcees might get overpowered by the strength of the sample, but Roc just confidently and smoothly eases into pimp mode, augmenting the texture of the sample with his own sleek stylings.  The words and production of Reloaded often suggest a position of dominance.

“We still getting it, piping dimes on the terrace, I’m thinkin’ about my life where it’s headin’/ I sleep with heat under the pillow, the cash is where I left it, it’s nothing/ I watch the city while I’m fucking, I’m such a glutton.” – Roc Marciano “Flash Gordon”

Roc also keeps the guest spots to a minimal despite a much broader stable of available artists, choosing to only pass guest verses on to Ka and Knowledge The Pirate, giving fans a second magnum opus of pure unadulterated Roc Marci lyricism.  Despite some more yacht rap friendly material, there’s still a good balance of grime on the album, just enough stories and images to remind listeners of the roots of their anti-hero’s transformation from Hempstead hustler to national icon.  Reloaded maintains the crystal clear imagery and blaxploitation flick vibe, but this time the narrator has seen it all and made it to the top, but remains surrounded by the allures, pitfalls, and PTSD-ish nightmares of his criminal past.

In many ways the evolution to Reloaded from Marcberg is like the evolution diehards wish they had seen Nas take between Illmatic and It Was Written if Nas hadn’t begun to muddy it all up with character mutilating commercial missteps on his sophomore album.  Reloaded plays like a logical extension of everything Nas started on “The Message,” and it contains all of the expected evolution of imagery that comes with the rise from hustler to kingpin without any unnecessary cash grabs or crossover attempts. It’s still a blaxploitation flick, this time it’s just set  Roc clearly still cares about the integrity of his art, the wit of his words and allusions, the pictures he paints in his listeners’ minds and as a result he’s maintains an extremely high quality product for round two.  A certain segment of fans will bemoan the diminishing returns of struggle monologues, but the reality is that artists change and grow, and it would be disengenuous of Roc Marciano to continue tell the story of the difficult rise to power when he’s already made it to the moutain top.

Roc Marciano “Emeralds” (prod by Arch Druids)

  1. Ramelo says:

    Love the overall of Reloaded…but Hold Up! Commercial Missteps of Nas 2nd album? You’re buggin the fuck out! It Was Written is an AMAZING ALBUM. Back in 1996 Purists said they were upset about It Was Written…Ask any of us now. It Was Written may actually be a better and more complete album than Illmatic.

    • jaybeware says:

      It Was Written is a great album, but it nobody thinks it was better than Illmatic. Some people will feel that Reloaded is better than Marcberg.

      • Actually IWW being better than Illmatic is a pretty popular opinion. It’s my favorite album of all-time, and not because I wasn’t aware of Illmatic.

      • jaybeware says:

        I think it’s important to distinguish between things like favorites, most popular, and better in discussions like this. It Was Written is a favorite album of many rap fans, it was a more popular album than Illmatic in general (2 million sold out the gate, compared to an album that only went gold initially), it is not considered a better album by the vast majority of rap critics. In the canon of classic rap albums Illmatic is frequently discussed as being the greatest or one of the greatest rap albums of all-time. It Was Written is commonly accepted as a strong departure of the formula that made Illmatic so memorable, yet a great album in its own right. Though many classify It Was Written as a classic, and some prefer it to Illmatic, that is not a popular critical opinion.

        I’m not going to continue this sidebar discussion any further, although it has inspired me to write another piece on Reloaded and It Was Written, which may or may not get done. The broader point here, again, is that if Nas had dropped an album like Reloaded after dropping Illmatic it would have been revered as a second classic critically and by die hard Illmatic fans immediately, It Was Written was not. There was a group of Nas fans that loved It Was Written out of the gate, a group that hated it out the gate, a bunch of new fans won, and several sects of fans that eventually came around to appreciate it for what it was. The vantage point and subject matter of It Was Written and Reloaded is very similar. The primary difference between It Was Written and Reloaded is that Roc makes no concessions to other interests here, there are no radio friendly songs, no club songs, no songs that would play well at the end of a dance at a small liberal arts college in New England. It Was Written had all of those things going for it, which to some, makes it a better, broader, more appealing album than Illmatic.

        There is a good debate to be had between cohesiveness and artistic variety in hip hop. Noz actually wrote a good piece about it the other day. I tend to side with cohesiveness, because I enjoy listening to full-length albums without skipping more than I do albums where I want to listen 5-6 really great songs and skip the rest. I think it’s important to acknowledge that is a personal preference, and there are legions of rap listeners who would rather have an album with 6 bangers and a bunch of filler, than a very even album of 12 songs that are each pretty good in their own right. Critics generally gravitate towards the latter, but record sales suggest that the average listener generally prefers the former.

        The mistake in my review, one I am willing to own, is that I cited “commercial missteps” on Nas’ It Was Written. That is a poor choice of words. In reality It Was Written was one of the few albums post Illmatic, where Nas didn’t make commercial missteps, what he made were commercial concessions (“Street Dreams,” “If I Ruled The World”). Those well executed concessions, helped Nas achieve fame and fortune that, in all likelihood, he never would have realized had he continued to make albums like Illmatic. They followed in the footsteps of Biggie songs like “Big Poppa” and “Juicy.” Reloaded contains no concessions of any kind, no departures, no glossy tangents. For Roc that may be a gift and a curse in that it will only strengthen the support of his current fans, and garner him further critical praise, but it won’t broaden his audience greatly and it won’t get him on the radio on tv more frequently. An important point in this discussion though, is that the rap world in 2012, is very different than it was in 1994-97. Roc doesn’t necessarily have to be on MTV or mainstream radio to be financially successful. His base will support his ability to tour, his rep will secure him as many guest verses as he’s willing to spit, and he can continue to release albums independently that his base will gobble up. In that sense, commercially it’s possible that both Nas and Roc made the right career move for each of themselves. Again it’s hard to know that without deeper insight of their financial statements, but its certainly possible.

        If we take Roc’s comments on his Complex list at face value, then Roc intends to make more commercially viable albums in the future, he cites a desire to make an album with Life After Death level of variety and execution. It is likely that if he is successful in doing that, many of his current fans will throw their hands up in disgust, just as many of Nas’ die hard Illmatic fans were initially disappointed by It Was Written. If Roc can execute such an album well, he could earn many more in the process and ultimately his die hard fans will always have at least Marcberg and Reloaded to cherish. Much as Nas did with It Was Written.

      • Respect. Dope blog. I just stumbled onto this searching for Reloaded reviews because it seemed like there wasn’t much enthusiasm for the record at the websites I frequent.

        I guess I put less value in critical opinion than you do. IWW wasn’t showered with praise by the journalists when it was released, but everyone I knew loved it in the summer of ’96. Lupe, Blu, Royce, Budden, Marciano, etc have all claimed it’s their favorite Nas album and a huge influence on their artistry. Even a google search of “It Was Written is better than Illmatic” will result in dozens of arguments as to why it’s better. That’s obviously not proof of it being a superior, but it’s certainly not a stretch to say a lot of people prefer IWW.

        Like you said, it’s not 1997 anymore, and I’m sure Roc can win without urban radio, but it’s not like he has a choice in the matter. He didn’t make any concessions because he has absolutely no pressure to sell records or appeal to a wider audience. XXL published a really great article on the making of IWW with commentary from Tone, Poke, Nas, and Steve Stoute. IWW was crafted meticulously to walk a fine line between gully and glossy. I think they caught lighting in a bottle. Others disagree. But I don’t think you can compare the sophomore junctures of their careers at all, though aesthetically Reloaded was definitely influenced by Nas and The Firm.

        While there’s no definitive way to really measure these things, just judging from what I’m seeing on message boards and twitter, Reloaded is absolutely not a unanimous hit with Roc’s core fan base. Forums that praised Marcberg (The Coli, Okayplayer, Unkut, etc) aren’t too excited about this release. Many seem to think the lack of drums detract from it. Others just claim it’s “not Marcberg”. I think Reloaded is clearly a better album. I don’t know if I like it better than Marcberg yet, but the rhymes are much stronger and the beats (aside from “Panic”) are more adventurous. Ironically, critics are salivating over Roc’s sophomore album for providing more of same, but I don’t think it does. It’s a much different project, as was IWW. That’s part of what makes them great.

      • jaybeware says:

        Some good points and I appreciate the discussion. I don’t agree that there is no pressure on Roc to sell records or appeal to a wider audience. I think there is always that pressure. There is always the allure of more and money is obviously a goal for Roc. I’m sure there were opportunities to go to bigger labels and try to reach a broader audience, but ultimately he knew that he wanted to make Reloaded as it is, and he wouldn’t have been able to do that on Major labels, although that dynamic is subtly changing this year as evidenced by the albums Lamar, Krit, and eXquire were all able to somehow squeeze past major label A&R’s. I’m definitely aware of the path Tone, Poke, and Stoute helped craft with IWW, and I think it was a more accessible blueprint to success for artists than Illmatic, which is why many artists might suggest they prefer it to Illmatic. Making another Illmatic is not a recipe for any sort of commercial success, making another It Was Written is. That said, it was never my intent to compare the junctures in their careers from a commercial standpoint – and I purposely avoided doing so in the review – obviously they stand in two very different places in time and in terms of the state of the record industry and their relationship to that industry. The tie-in is that there are key elements of Marcberg that certainly relate to Illmatic and key elements of Reloaded that relate to It Was Written, but there are certainly other corollaries (Doe or Die, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, The Infamous, Hell on Earth, etc) that are arguably better archetypes for the work done on each album. There is also no doubt that as Marcberg and Reloaded both stand alone as excellent and unique products and comparisons are really only beneficial in describing the album to someone who hasn’t heard them and for bloggers and journalists who like to use other works as a point of reference, because it requires less detailed descriptions of the subject matter and overall aesthetic.

        I don’t frequent the same forums you listed, but the acclaim I have seen for Reloaded has been damn near universal, among both individuals who have heard the album and critics who have written about the album. I think there are rightfully some who prefer Marcberg over Reloaded and vice versa, they are both excellent albums and there is something to be said for each of them. I don’t think I’ve fully decided which I prefer at this point, but I think they work great together. If anything the comment about that I initially made about It Was Written, was a reflection of how well I think Reloaded works as a follow-up to Marcberg. No matter how much one may feel about Illmatic and It Was Written, the shift in production aesthetics was stark, and jarring. Good, bad, or indifferent listening to Illmatic and the individual guest verses Nas dropped leading up to It Was Written and then listening to It Was Written, the development of the production shift is not seamless, it’s drastic. Throwing out Flipmode, those that have listened to Roc from UN days, to Marcberg days, to the individual tracks and appearances over the last couple years, to the release of Reloaded, there is a very clear and subtle development. So while Reloaded is sonically distinct from Marcberg or UN OR U OUT, the reality is that the transition has been a steady progression that one can easily follow. There will always be those who want to hear the same thing over and over, but most listeners will be bored by that approach.

        There will also always be loud detractors to any album – especially one that a large group loves – but they’re usually representative of a very small yet vocal minority. The drums discussion is a perfect example. There is only a very specific subset of rap production analyzing savants that even notice or care about the use of drums on an album. The average rap listener might perceive it viscerally, but doesn’t even engage music in that way. In my opinion (and it’s just that), only dyed in the wool boom-bap fanatics would decry the lack of drums as a major negative shift between Marcberg and Reloaded that renders the latter less successful (it is definitely a significant shift though). In general the use of drums in rap has changed dramatically in rap over the last half decade – in my opinion for the worse – but this album is not example of a record that suffers greatly from the lack of strong drums. Roc makes very conscious decisions with regards to his drums – as evidenced by the interview I did with Ka this year where Ka talked about Roc’s tutelage around the use of drums. And as you say his production choices are adventurous and strong. He has defined his own sound on both albums and they both are superior products as a result of his work there.

  2. Domjell says:

    Interestingly, Roc thinks It Was Written was better than Illmatic (See Complex Mag).

    • jaybeware says:

      That doesn’t surprise me entirely, but point taken. Doesn’t change the point I was making in the original comment, which is that Reloaded is what many fans wanted out of Nas for round 2, and they would’ve been happier with an album like this than the one they got. Obviously not all rap fans, but most die-hard Illmatic fans. The point is that Roc knows his audience, he isn’t trying to do new things to pull listeners, but he’s also not afraid of growth and development.

  3. […] the growth his frequent partner-in-rhyme and production symbiote Roc Marciano displayed on Reloaded – a few lusher backdrops, and when the loops are stripped down they’re more idiosyncratic […]

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