As the dean of Roc-A-Fella Records' second-tier rappers, Memphis Bleek now has the kind of opportunity that most long-toiling lieutenants can only dream about: The marquee names are all in transition, and the Roc's legacy is essentially up for grabs.
The one true superstar, Jay-Z, has become a full-time executive at the label's new parent, Def Jam. As part of that process, Roc-A-Fella impresarios Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke sold out and formed another company. Kanye West still calls the Roc home, but his mainstream success seems separate from the label's street appeal.
Roc stars Beanie Sigel and Cam'ron went with Dash and Burke -- and Sigel is also serving a prison sentence for a gun conviction.
In other words, Bleek (aka Malik Cox) now has the torch. But he obviously refused to start any fires with it. His fourth solo disc, "534," named after a childhood Brooklyn address, relies on all the elements that made Roc-A-Fella a hit factory at the turn of the century: New York cockiness, club-ready hooks and allegiance to a stylized version of the thug life. The formula hardly seems fresh anymore.
And Bleek's shortcomings as an MC seem only amplified. He's not particularly gifted as a rhymer, but he gets by with an unfazed tone and a hard-headed image. (He was arrested a few weeks ago on charges of beating up a busboy at a New York club.) Those attributes often aren't enough. On "534," his monosyllabic, slang-heavy lyrics rarely offer more than one-dimensional descriptions of life as a well-armed, cannabis-craving lover man. "You know I move with the snub, 'cause I'm like that / And you don't really want beef, you ain't like that / Ma, come here, tell me if it's like that / And move the body real slow just like that," he says during the high-energy "Like That," a song that is better than the sum of its parts.
Appropriately, all of Bleek's rhymes are upstaged by "Dear Summer," a one-off by Jay-Z that serves as a first attempt by the "retiree" to keep a toe in the recording studio. Against a breezy groove produced by mainstay Just Blaze, the new Mr. Def Jam riffs on his change in lifestyle but notes that he'll be "thuggin' till the casket dips." The rhymes are sometimes terse and peppered with profanity, but the track is artful when compared with Bleek's by-the-numbers approach.
If anything, Bleek will never upstage a beat, and "534" has several moments where the producers are the stars. Just Blaze and another Roc veteran, Swizz Beatz, give about half of the disc an upbeat sheen; underground hotshot 9th Wonder adds a bit of soulful mystery; and the unsung Chad Hamilton brings some heat with an old-fashioned breakbeat on "Get Low."
During that track, as Bleek trades low-brainpower party rhymes with guest rapper Livin' Proof, he sounds utterly at home as a performer, and it makes sense. He was never supposed to be a top-flight act, and although few rappers manage to have four-album careers, even fewer can say they've been friends with Jay-Z since back in the day. We should all be so lucky.