It can be tricky to be the little brother to someone as talented and popular as Jay Z. It can breed hate, jealousy, resentment. Friendships can burn from it.
Memphis Bleek and Jay-Z have such a connection ever since Jay began his mainstream recording career. Bleek was a mainstay on early Jay-Z releases, and you felt with such guidance and mentoring Bleek was destined to succeed. The clearest indication that he has not been entirely successful came from the Jay himself on a Kanye song, ‘Bleek could be one hit away his whole career, long as I’m alive he’s a millionaire’. And, as of 2012, he is still one hit away. A solid performer who would be pursuing a career elsewhere if he didn’t have to cosign of one of the greatest rappers and businessmen of all time.
So it is with expectancy and hope that you play his first two albums. His delivery is an unchanging, unflinching, energetic sound. He always sounds like he is going somewhere, there's a pent-up energy behind his rhymes dying to get out. He can inject that energy in to a dull track. On "It’s Alright," a cut off the Streets Is Watching OST, Jay-Z raps hard, but sounds like he is just jogging. Memphis Bleek sprints on to the stage, runs around like his head is on fire as he raps his verse, then sprints off. It is an endearing quality, and Bleek hasn't let it yet weary him. On his first two albums he was always in this mode, which is admirable, but you could feel there was another gear, a more introspective and mature artist waiting to get out.
As soon as Coptic’s horns and drums roll in, and Bleek is in his element! He’s not addressing anything new on M.A.D.E. but it's as if the stars are aligning. His flow settles in to a brilliant groove, and he sounds more assured than ever before. Everything’s A Go takes it to 11. As usual, is there anything Just Blaze can’t do? Boring, he can’t do boring. It’s an adrenalin shot this track. The chorus is killer, and then he just dismisses everyone else: "I’m in the class, all by myself/ Now you haters wanna crowd my space/ Hundred grand all in your face, motherfucker better fix ya face/ For they butterfly-stich ya face." Jay-Z wanders in for a lazy 6 bars that ooze confidence and wealth, and as a listener you're just one-two’d and wondering where this album is going to go next. It's 80 minutes you can’t handle an adrenalin shot for that long. So instead Bleek changes tack straight up and just settles in. "Round Here" is another Just Blaze track, it bangs with a dirty south Bay Area feel. T.I. provides the perfect foil for Bleek with his southern drawl. "We Ballin’" is another banger, then "War" produced by Just Blaze again gets your heart rate up. The whole album just flows on, and every time you feel like you’ve had quite enough of Bleek for the moment a guest pops up, usually Jay-Z or Beanie Sigel, and distracts you, refreshes you, and readies you for another onslaught of the main event.
The shining light of lyrical content on this album comes from the track "My Life." On it, Bleek changes tune a little from the sports cars, beautiful women and expensive alcohol imagery that litters his back catalogue to address his actual history, his experiences outside of the lifestyle. It’s a welcome song, the best track on the album. Still gully, still hard, its autobiographical. "It was just yesterday, moms waitin on the stamps / The spot got shot up, and Dre still locked up / It’s me against the world with no brother, just a revolver / And I ain’t thinkin about seein tomorrow." The way Bleek delivers it is actually quite hypnotic, maybe he should’ve called this track that. It’s the imperfections in his lyrics that make this track work, it’s all in the delivery and the truth.
So we come back full circle to a man with the greatest best friend in the world. And does he resent him, feel even slightly jealous of the success and skill that Jay-Z possesses? Bleek is a humble soul. There's no resentment whatsoever, he is mature and wise beyond his years. Rather than kick back with his hand out, he's constantly investing in new endeavours, including his work with D'Usse and the almost unstoppable Warehouse Music Group, which features work with Casanova and Manolo Rose (as well as my man King A1).
And you know what? Bleek never once sounded entitled on any of his albums. Every record of his stands alone as a high quality solo project, and while 534 might have had more marketing push and a higher production budget, it's M.A.D.E. that may just go down as a hood classic in another 5 years time. Bleek was at the peak of his powers. No longer was he merely Jay Z's protege, he had transformed into the entity that he is today. People aren't booking "Jay Z and Memphis Bleek" shows and interview, podcasts aren't stipulating he has to come in with an entire crew of people, they're requesting Memphis Bleek, dolo. It's a rare person who can play the role Bleek did. Consider how good M.A.D.E. is, it would have gone gold without Roc-A-Fella or Jay Z. But he remained humble, he remained focused, and he created his own name, separate from his God-like brother.