'The Elephant Man's Bones' is the culmination of two careers
The Elephant Man's Bones likely won't trouble the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 — but that's not its reason for existing. Instead, the album by revered Los Angeles producer Alchemist and Long Island crime rhyme auteur Roc Marciano is a nourishing reminder that artists who stay authentic to their core values can make the long game work and ride out sub-genre impact and regional movements. Eventually, like-minded souls meet. In the case of Alchemist and Marciano, it has been an epic, intersecting journey across eras, and, rewardingly, the culmination of their respective efforts is the record they've both been inching toward their entire careers.
In essence, The Elephant Man's Bones is a testament to a couple of hip-hop long-haulers who've never wavered from their creative ethics, even if at times those ethics seemed out of sync with hip-hop's prevailing ethos. Both artists experienced early career misfires. Alchemist debuted in the 1990s as one half of the group the Whooliganz alongside the actor Scott Caan. (Going by the name Mudfoot, he also rapped.) Despite counting on the patronage of Cypress Hill, the group's singles fizzled out, and they were dropped by their label, Tommy Boy. For his part, Marciano was invited to join Busta Rhymes's Flipmode Squad toward the tail end of the same decade. The chemistry didn't totally gel. Undeterred, Marciano reformed as part of the hyper-rugged quartet the UN. The group's debut album, UN Or U Out, was recorded and released in 2004 under the guidance of renowned New York producer Pete Rock, but from its inception the project seemed destined to be an under-appreciated thug-rap gem rather than a breakthrough moment.
At these respective career junctures, both Alchemist and Marciano found the inner conviction to throw off their negative industry experiences and recommit to their core beliefs. Holed up on opposite coasts, they became parallel figures gradually moving toward what would eventually emerge as an influential shared sonic goal.
Alchemist put faith in mastering the art of mercurial mid-tempo beats that emphasize the dramatic flair of a sampled loop and use deft minimalism to convey high drama. An Alchemist beat is exactly the sort of thing to soundtrack a rain-flecked back-alley scene in a noir gangster flick. Yet, crucially, Alchemist managed to co-exist in multiple rap worlds, during a period in the late '90s and early '00s when hip-hop was in the midst of a civil war. Fevered debates kicked off about the true essence of hip-hop and the relationship between art and commerce. A generation of book-smart independent artists fronted by Talib Kweli and Mos Def were pitched against a gaggle of glitzy rappers corralled by Sean "Puffy" Combs; in the alley, a coterie of unrepentant goon rappers stood out of sight scowling at the whole shebang. Alchemist wound up soundtracking each space. You'd just as likely hear him backing L.A. underground scene favorites Dilated Peoples or stalwarts of the indie label Rhymesayers as bolstering the cutthroat Queensbridge narratives of Mobb Deep and Infamous Mobb. As the 2000s unfurled, Alchemist's production was increasingly sought after by Top 40 mainstays, including Nelly, Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne. Everyone, it seemed, loved an Alchemist beat.
While Alchemist was establishing a web of connections across various levels of the industry, Marciano was readying his self-produced 2010 album, Marcberg. The album reinvigorated a wave of New York rappers struggling with identity issues, and, it can be argued, transformed him into the most influential New York underground artist of the last decade. At the time, the hip-hop scene was defined by the splintering influence of rap A-listers: Drake's melodious, R&B-tinged Thank Me Later, Rick Ross' explosive coke-rap fiction Teflon Don, and Kanye West's expansive electronic-influenced My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. New York rappers committed to the tenets of a boom-bap gospel appeared out of step with the wider world. Marciano, apparently, didn't care. He shrugged and dropped an unapologetic record that resonated as an elevated take on a local standard. Set to an evocatively gloomy backdrop, Marciano laced grit-sodden thug rap talk with the unruffled patter of '70s pimp flicks. His penchant for forming verses around tense vignettes, rather than drawn-out, prescribed narratives, imbued the album with a palpable — and at times frightening — realism. The MC's vow to dump enemy bodies in the Hudson River on "Ridin' Around" is appropriately chilling.
Marciano's lyrical menace was enhanced by the quiet storm method of keeping the drums deliberately hushed in the mix — or, in some cases, absent from a song entirely. The formula didn't catch on immediately, but it eventually inspired a stream of artists who realized that muted sonics could amplify the power of their words. It's certainly hard to imagine the breakthrough success of the Griselda stable of rappers happening without Marciano paving the way. Call it maxed-out minimalism.
On "God Loves You," from 2019's Marcielago project, Marciano encapsulated his influence with hindsight: "The aim was the lane of Rakim and Kane / The landscape changed when I went against the grain / N****s wasn't quick to embrace, no / I could've did the same but I didn't hate / I just did my thing and prayed, eventually sh** went my way." More recently, he put it bluntly, on "Stigmata" from The Elephant Man's Bones: "I've been inspiring these donkeys for a mother****in' decade straight." Adding credence to the MC's claims, ?uestlove once tweeted at the Alchemist, in 2012, that he'd enjoyed his "best hip-hop debate" with Jay Z about the merits of Marcberg.
As the 2010s progressed, Alchemist and Marciano started to notch a small but key number of collaborations. They were kindred spirits, relying on the power of restraint to convey an abiding sense of peril. The Alchemist-produced "Flash Gordon," from Marciano's 2012 Reloaded album, is a marvel of clipped drums and a haunting piano refrain; "Hoard 90," from Alchemist and Oh No's Greenberg project on Stones Throw, co-starred Marciano flowing over a wormy guitar loop and coming off like a psychedelic-enhanced thug rap lord.
The two artists' creative foils increasingly overlapped too. The caliber of MCs that followed in Marciano's stylistic footsteps were a natural fit for Alchemist's beats — the producer crafted full-length outings for a roster of artists headed up by gourmand rap personality Action Bronson (2012's Rare Chandeliers) and Detroit's Boldy James (2013's My 1st Chemistry Set). Tellingly, both MCs appear on The Elephant Man's Bones: James' taut corner dispatches fortify the eerily humming "Trillion Cut," while Bronson embraces the scuzz funk of "Daddy Kane" by quipping how "ya boy looking like a mother****in' stegosaurus." Nodding to the pimp-culture heritage of Marciano's verses, Ice-T narrates the grisly organ-infused "The Horns Of Abraxas." (Spoiler: The rotting smell coming from the trunk of Marciano's car is not expired food.)
At a digestible 38 minutes, The Elephant Man's Bones gives the impression of two artists from different geographical backgrounds journeying at their own pace to meet a mutual musical summit. Marciano's lyrical threats are delivered in typically unruffled fashion and laced with insouciance. "My dude on the roof, he ain't bring a fiddle / The feds might have bugged the rental / We speak in riddles / Left your vehicle riddled / Your femur break easy as peanut brittle," raps the MC over the simmering atmospherics of "Zip Guns," before delivering a dose of trademark arrogance: "Blow a kiss at your miss at the vigil / I'm a cruel individual." Alchemist's refined beats are a lesson in drumming up emotion through moderation. Opener "Rubber Hand Grip" is powered by a series of kick drums that play the role of an ominous metronome signaling impending danger; reflective album closer "Think Big" sounds surprisingly tender, considering Marciano's tributes to the Notorious B.I.G. are backed by a loop of a colony of seagulls mewing. The production is expertly distilled, sometimes delightfully wonky, and often mutedly weird; even more left-of-center than the Alchemist-produced Armand Hammer album, HARAM. No sound is needlessly overused. Each artist leans into the other's strength. By now, Roc Marciano understands that subtlety can speak volumes, and the Alchemist knows you don't always need to strike hard to land a deadly blow.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.