When everything is said and done, the short-lived “dynasty” that was Roc-A-Fella Records gave birth to a pair of household names that stood above the rest of the label’s roster. Of course there was co-founder, Jay-Z, who delivered some eight albums over the past few years, and carrying the torch for the Roc after his departure was his unlikely successor, Kanye West. But ask any of the other ten artists signed to Roc-A-Fella, there’s more to the label than just Jay and K. Both Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek have been putting it down for an equal amount of time, and even longer than their labelmate-turned-star, Kanye West. So why haven’t they blown up yet?
Despite the fact that Beans or Bleek don’t have platinum plaques hanging on the walls, each have a few records under their belt, and that’s more than most artists with an expired Roc-A-Fella contract (and chain) can say. With Memphis Bleek’s 534, Bleek delivers his fourth album, once again showing his everlasting starvation to take his mentor’s place as the future of NYC.
Like Bleek’s last few records, 534 shows an almost linear growth from the artist, with several solid tracks, and a few unfortunate snoozers that help keep him in that “3-and-a-half” range. But Bleek’s hunger never left, and when applying it, he comes off. His strongest results come in the form of up-tempo, energetic party tracks, such as the spring banger, “Like That”, thanks to the powerhouse production of the reinvented Swizz Beats (see also: T.I. “Bring Em Out” and Cassidy “I’m A Hustler”). The same can be said for the ridiculous “Oh Baby”, which is liable to at least cause a few car accidents, if it doesn’t cause a club riot first. He also straightens out a classic breakbeat on “Get Low” (not a Lil Jon cover), as he and Proof (not of D12) play Pete Rock and CL Smooth (but with drugs and guns). On “Alright”, Bleek is blessed with one of two luscious 9th Wonder beats, where he laments “I’m back on the block again / back with the rock again / watchin’ for cops again / all about the profit end / they got me back in this game again / but I swear, we all gon’ be alright.” In this moment of truth, Bleek has no problem admitting that he’s still getting his hustle on the corner, thanks to his lackluster record sales – and you have no problem believing it.
Hey, at least he’s got something to fall back on, as the embarrassing Irv Gotti assisted “Infatuated” won’t do much to make him a household name anytime soon. Same can be said for “The One”, a summertime, top-down cruiser which barely misses the mark thanks to a lousy hook from Barbados’ own Rhianna (who?). In one sense, it’s understandable that he would water down his “single material” for radio airplay, but why taint a perfectly good 9th Wonder beat on “Smoke The Pain Away” with more awful, amateur crooning? While the M.O.P. featured “First Last and Only” helps keep the album on solid ground, the yawn-inducing pair of closers, “All About Me” and “Straight Path” come off as boring and contrived.
There’s no denying that this album has joints, but as usual, if only Bleek could construct an album that didn’t dip in and out of mediocrity so frequently, he might get out of that dreaded 3.5 range. And, I shouldn’t even go here, but, when the best track on your album is a Jay-Z solo song (“Dear Summer”, which begins after you’ve only been listening to the LP for three minutes), it all becomes clear as to why Bleek hasn’t blown up yet. Shamefully, with the kind of production Bleek had to work with here, Jigga’s lone appearance sparks another question – how dope of an album would this have been if it was Jay-Z rhyming on these beats instead? Fill in the blanks yourself, enjoy this album for what it’s worth, but Bleek’s fourth effort unfortunately won’t blow him up any more than his first three did.
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