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Roc Marciano - Behold a Dark Horse Music Album Reviews

The New York rapper’s skill and authority are so strong on his latest project it’s like listening to a director’s commentary without ever seeing the movie. It is also marred by his retrograde homophobia.

Roc Marciano is an artist of humble beginnings who, by will and wit, became one of New York’s finest shit-talking diarists. Almost 10 years after getting signed by Busta Rhymes and set aside in nearly the same breath, he self-produced his stark solo debut. And now, eight years after that, he is a cornerstone in that stark space, with a large enough following to sell digital albums for $30 a pop exclusively on his website. The tale of a Flipmode Squad cast-off becoming one of the most accomplished independent rappers nearly two decades later is as captivating a story as anything that happens in his songs. He has sometimes even tied his unlikely, industry-subverting success story into his imaginative street epics (“Fuck an A&R, I can do way more with an AR,” he brags on “1000 Deaths”). Behold a Dark Horse, his second album of the year following the sequel RR2: The Bitter Dose, folds his two worlds into one. His ability to make listeners see as he sees is second to none.

The New York rapper’s skill and authority are so strong on his latest project it’s like listening to a director’s commentary without ever seeing the movie. It is also marred by his retrograde homophobia.

Roc Marciano is an artist of humble beginnings who, by will and wit, became one of New York’s finest shit-talking diarists. Almost 10 years after getting signed by Busta Rhymes and set aside in nearly the same breath, he self-produced his stark solo debut. And now, eight years after that, he is a cornerstone in that stark space, with a large enough following to sell digital albums for $30 a pop exclusively on his website. The tale of a Flipmode Squad cast-off becoming one of the most accomplished independent rappers nearly two decades later is as captivating a story as anything that happens in his songs. He has sometimes even tied his unlikely, industry-subverting success story into his imaginative street epics (“Fuck an A&R, I can do way more with an AR,” he brags on “1000 Deaths”). Behold a Dark Horse, his second album of the year following the sequel RR2: The Bitter Dose, folds his two worlds into one. His ability to make listeners see as he sees is second to none.

Marciano doesn’t ever deviate from his formula and he’s had plenty of time to refine the model since 2010’s cult classic Marcberg. But any notion that hearing one Roc Marciano album is like hearing them all is put to rest with Behold a Dark Horse. Nearly 20 years into his career, with his lane more crowded than ever, Marci has made his raps sharper, let his flows whisk through richer samples, and deepened his commitment to the character he plays. “Nobody’s perfect but I’m close/I can’t be cloned, when I was made: after, they broke the mold/It was written in stone,” he raps on a song called “Fabio.”

The same steeliness that powered previous records still powers Dark Horse, but there is a new momentum that props it up as something to behold. Marci has spent much of the ’10s fine-tuning his twisting technique and blurring the lines between throwback pimp iconography and gritty mafioso rap. But now that his legacy is preserved, he’s stepped out of the shadows a bit. Things are less grainy. Marciano (again) produces the majority of the beats here himself, but he laces some of his crispest sample work without losing that stained, cinematic quality, as if he’s restoring an old spool of film to digital. Beats from Q-Tip, the Alchemist, Animoss, and more are slotted in to add just a touch of color. The choicest among them is the Q-Tip-produced closer “Consigliere,” with its sweeping strings and dusty drums, and Marci lets it wash over him as he raps, “You know the forte: Ralph Lauren drawers on but fuck the horseplay/Got sauce for days; you got poor taste.”

The beats are foreboding and gorgeous all at once, but it’s the ways Roc Marciano frames himself inside them that makes Behold a Dark Horse so interesting, how his singular syntax reveals his mind. His Aussie bitch is double jointed and the double barrel joint is pointed at your boyfriend (“Sampson & Delilah”). He’s Huey Newton in the king’s wicker chair with the pistol near and his face is chiseled in the silverware, with care (“Amethyst”). His talk of murder and mayhem and moneymen seems almost mythic. He raps about himself the way other rappers lionize Escobar.

There are many MCs that now occupy the same space in our imagination that Marci once dominated at the turn of the decade. Plenty of these tri-state technicians have similar skill sets. But Ka is never this bold, Westside Gunn never this unflustered, Mach-Hommy isn’t nearly as Machiavellian. Marci’s less animated than Action Bronson but more quotable. He is so blasé reenacting the fanciful excursions in his songs that it makes them feel realer and more thrilling.

The only time Roc Marciano pulls the listener out of his world is when he is reiterating his long-held homophobic worldview. He has an extensive history of homophobic lyrics—not just slurs but also hate speech—across his entire catalog and as recently as RR2: The Bitter Dose. This pattern of behavior has largely gone ignored in the wake of his tremendous skill. But he brings it up so often on Dark Horse, and some of the lyrics are so off-putting, that it almost feels like a secondary mandate. Here’s a guy who is among the most fastidious and cultured street writers of an era still stuck in the stone ages on basic rights. It follows that a ’90s rap purist would hold such a retrograde belief; there is no place for it, in our world or his, and it sullies the experience of the album. For a rapper obsessed with relishing his own good taste and beguiling listeners into his densely packed domain, it’s not just inelegant or distasteful, it’s uninviting and obtuse.

These moments are frequent enough to draw the eye to the seams of Roc Marciano’s illusion on Behold a Dark Horse in what is an otherwise mesmerizing character study. His greatest trick is drawing you in so close that you lose the plot. He fits so much scenery, so much detail, into his frame of vision that anything outside the scope is extraneous. It’s like listening to a director’s commentary without seeing the movie.

Such a bizarre framework only works if your perspective is more powerful than the scenes you’re shooting, and Roc Marciano is among the best at positioning himself as the only reliable narrator. Marci never really makes a case for where his authority comes from or why it goes unquestioned, and he doesn’t have to. His rapping is the case. He strings together multis with a casualness that insinuates and even sells the power dynamics he cites. “You still a child/You need to climb down from the treehouse/Still, even then, we not playing on even ground,” he snarls. Behold a Dark Horse is the first time Roc Marciano feels as in control as he says he is on record, for better and worse.


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