Off Whitechapel road is the Royal London Hospital, a medical school for aspiring doctors and nurses. Joseph Merrick lived in this hospital but not by choice. His face was deformed, his head swelling several times the size of a normal human; his fingers and hands bulky and disfigured; this was due to Proteus syndrome, a very rare congenital disorder also known as Wiedemann syndrome. Joseph was known as the Elephant Man, an individual you’d assume had been struck by the wrath of God.
In the London School for Doctors, following a stint at a freak show, Joseph found asylum behind the hospital walls. The Elephant Man eventually became lauded by the rich elites and celebrities due to the exotic fetishizing of his disease. Joseph died in 1890 at the age of 27, with the official cause of death as asphyxia after his heavy head caused his neck to dislocate. Nearly a century later, Michael Jackson found fascination with the Elephant Man, spending hours in the Royal London Hospital where his bones would be exhibited along with his coat and hat. The King of Pop desired to own his bones, feeling a closeness due to a line in David Lynch’s film on Merrick’s life: “I’m not an Animal, I’m a man!” The Elephant Man’s plight for normalcy against the disease that dehumanized him was overshadowed by pop culture and a dancehall artist with the same name.
The abnormal fascination and the twisted luxury behind the ownership of his bones fuel Roc Marciano and Alchemist’s latest collaborative album, The Elephant Man’s Bones. 2020’s Mt. Marci contained the track “The Eye of Whorus,” where Roc flexes “I still own the Elephant Man’s bones.” Also produced by Alchemist, this became the inspiration behind the project. The result is an intricate 14-track product defined by exceptional wordplay, songwriting that emulates a crime noir novel, and masterful compositions.
It’s been a decade since Marciano “piped dimes on the terrace” on “Flash Gordon,” the first time Al and Roc linked up. Marciano is specific with his beat selection; his entire catalog is predominantly self-produced. He’s only willing to hand over the boards when the production is coming from a legendary producer, in this case, it’s Alchemist who’s coming off the heels of the excellent Continuance with Curren$y. Al’s style involves samples that are looped, then tarred, and feathered beyond recognition, a perfect canvas for Roc’s burst of lyrics that can overwhelm as easily as it can be dissected. Previously, Roc could feel like an information overload, but on The Elephant Man’s Bones, the flow is more tamed, controlled, and sharply focused. He maintains a composure of a retired pimp-turned-rapper, conjuring images of rapping between sips of Hennessy and puffs of his cigar.
The opener “Rubber Hand Grip,” is menacing, brooding, and minimal. Alchemist creeps subtle snares in the background, a looped chime, and a bassline fit for the backdrop of a Law and Order crime scene. Roc’s non sequiturs are thrown one after another: “Speeding in the BMW lookin’
unassuming/Just me and my Uzi, we lookin’ like a couple spooning/ Enough with the canoodling, blow your noodles on your beautiful drip.” But on the Action Bronson assisted “Daddy Kane,” Roc falls back to a more fluid traditional flow and his lyrics continue the impressive wordplay, at the same time reflecting on his growing status as a rapper and how people don’t know him and what he’s capable of. Bronson’s verse is ripped straight out of a cartoon or a bad acid trip.
One of the more impressive feats of the Elephant Man’s Bones is the seamless blending of jazz and rap that can feel like a late-night drug deal in one instance, and then an old-timers blues bar in the next. The funky keys and bass fuse with the snapping of the snares on “Quantum Leap”. Calling back to Martin, Roc spits “Seventeen shells in the semi/That’s the same iron that burnt Penny.” His writing is exciting and well-layered, but he takes the time to add some clairvoyance and talk about his feelings on the self-titled track. Over a flutter of classical piano keys, Marciano shows his disdain for groupies: “Can’t trust no bitch, she just tryna bang her favorite musician, like I ain’t got feelings.”
Alchemist and Roc Marciano call back to Reloaded on the up-tempo “Bubble Bath”. The bells trickle in the production while Marci delivers verses like a 90s NYC cipher. On the album highlight “Liquid Coke,” Al distorts strings while drums and cymbals crash underneath. Marciano fills the next two and a half minutes with blunt threats, deflecting pettiness from his enemies, and a reminder he’s still making money off this “chicken scratch”. “It’s not a catch twenty-two this a TEC-22,” he spits headily.
Elephant Man Bones maintains a balance in its 38-minute runtime with a total of four features, one of them being a spoken word intro/outro from Ice-T on “The Horns of Abraxas”. Boldy James offers an exceptional verse on “Trillion Cut,” reminiscing about selling dope with his friends as his only revenue. Alchemist spreads a nervous piano medley that’s led with a creeping saxophone; Marci lays a hook about cutting fentanyl that sounds more disturbing than joyous.
Music in 2022 lacks any viable shelf life due to how easily digestible the streaming era has become. Dozens of releases are listened to and consumed within hours until the next “highly-anticipated” release. But The Elephant Man’s Bones subverts this, by being the realization of internet dream collaboration chatter, where the result is better than fantasy.
Check out the Roc Marciano x Alchemist Elephant Man's Bones album. Lyricism is off the charts front to back.
— Mike Martinez (@MIKEMVRTINEZ) September 25, 2022
Roc Marciano & The Alchemist- Daddy Kane
The Elephant Man's Bones
— the humble bragger🤴🏾🫂 (@rukudz01) September 2, 2022
This Roc Marciano/Alchemist album is FIRE!!! The Elephant Man’s Bones 💯
— RegularM1ke😁El Snacko™️😎 (@RegularM1ke) August 29, 2022