On August 2, when the clock hit midnight in New York City, something extraordinary happened—at least in the isolated, beautiful world that is underground hip-hop.
JAY-Z’s colossal 4:44 was perched in the number one spot on the iTunes Hip-Hop chart, while the third, fourth and fifth place entries were similarly predictable household names—Meek, Kendrick and 21 Savage, respectively—but debuting in the number two position, right behind the most popular New York City rap artist of all-time, was a newcomer from Hell’s Kitchen who pulled off a remarkable coup.
With no label backing, no management, and a very small budget, Marlon Craft’s The Tunnel’s End, was nearly, at least for a moment in time, the most popular hip-hop album on iTunes.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Marlon’s “made it.”
With apologies to Steve Jobs, iTunes’ stake in the musical landscape has faded in 2017’s stream-centric world. Still, Craft’s accomplishment is significant. When the words “indie rapper” and “charting” are found in the same sentence these days, “Chance” or “Strange Music” are usually lurking nearby. It’s not surprising anymore when a technically independent act with the infrastructural support of a Macklemore or the fan base of a Tech N9ne achieves national reach.
Marlon Craft doesn’t have any of that.
With the release of The Tunnel’s End, what the young emcee does have, though, is a very solid debut that delivers on every intended front. Packed with the content and sound that “hip-hop is dead” buzzkills have been clamoring for for years, the album plays as a direct rebuttal to anyone who’s doubted the rap pedigree of the entire new generation.
Sonically, The Tunnel’s End is firmly rooted in New York City, both past and present. That’s no surprise, either; Marlon’s always paid musical homage to his and hip-hop’s birthplace. It's also a concept album of sorts, woven together through its skits and an album launch from the subways of NYC. Without a healthy serving of booms and baps, there’s no way that perspective could be authentic.
On his last tape, Craft aspired to look like nothing; to strike listeners as a true original. With The Tunnel’s End, he comes ever-so-close to reaching that lofty goal.
From the very first track, the luscious “The One,” it’s clear that The Tunnel’s End finds Craft leveling up. Start with his delivery; Marlon’s mastered control of his unique vocal timbre, approaching melodies with more consistency and style than on previous projects. It’s a small jump for an emcee whose gritty voice and technical flow have been a strength for years, but it’s representative of a project which finds Marlon growing in spurts across the board.
Rap-wise, Craft is sharp as ever, with rhymes and schemes all over the project that ring true as elite by even the dustiest old-head standards.
Take the Marco Polo-produced “Marco Made Me Do It,” where Craft spits:
“Truth hurts mother fucker, yeah I got plenty pain / I ain’t scared to lose this semi-fame, I got plenty flames”
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Something about that couplet fit in the pocket so well that my sunburnt rap-nerd arms sprout goosebumps. For rappity rap lovers, there are plenty of times the bars on Tunnel’s End will leave your arms prickling or your face scrunched in a smile.
Striving for true originality while so heavily paying tribute to the sounds of the past is a monumental task, but it’s a challenge that Marlon tackle head-on with convincing confidence and refreshingly authentic artistry.
As for the group of dedicated fans who helped Marlon land near the very top of the iTunes Hip-Hop chart, there’s plenty of reasons to bet on the Hell’s Kitchen rapper.
The Tunnel's End is nostalgic yet modern, informed yet accessible; at times head-knocking and gritty, at others smooth and vibed-out. The most striking unifying factor is Craft himself: a bright young voice with a progressive mindset who’s destined to write his name in New York’s history books alongside his heroes.
For those that were able to glimpse the release day chart, one might say he already has by taking up the real estate directly underneath JAY-Z.
The Tunnel’s End reads as the first episode in a long Craft legacy. The end couldn't feel further away.
3 Standout Tracks
"The Feels / TTE 2"
If Craft was signed with Pro Era or had the distribution infrastructure of Chance in his back pocket, this track could be a sleeper hit. Besides the buttery beat and captivating rapping throughout, “The Feels” shines for its powerful take on overcoming those bluesy feelings that plague every artist.
Marlon details all of the struggles he’s faced and continues to face, but raps them all into submission, dancing around the beat so confidently that it’s impossible not to feel some optimism as the track ends. Fun “what if”: throw an Isaiah Rashad feature on here and this joint could dominate Spotify playlists.
"New York Shit / TTE 3" ft. Radamiz
Yes, Marlon really really really likes to rap about NYC. But when your flows are this cold and the beat is this gritty, who really gives a damn if the subject matter is well-trodden?
Radamiz is a perfect feature on this one, bringing another golden era-influenced voice to instrumentation that sounds right out of Eric B.’s vault. Some nice retro-styled visuals by No Idea’s Original cement the status of “New York Shit” as the most straightforward old-school banger on a project which flirts with retro styles constantly.
Ending the album on a triumphant note, “Unstoppable” serves as a concise and upbeat wrap-up of many of the themes Craft touches on throughout the album. The production is groovy, with a soulful sample and a '70s bounce to it, and goddamn does that man Craft rap well.
“Unstoppable” fits as a descriptor of Marlon’s flow on the track, as he drops a dizzying stream of tightly-wound lyrics with so few breaths that you feel like he’ll just keep going and going. But it’s also a perfect moniker for Craft as an artist, and a fitting close for the project.