"Bleek's gonna be a good rapper. New, improved Jay-Z!" —Pain In Da Azz, Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life (1998)
Memphis Bleek’s most listened-to song on Spotify is "Dear Summer,” with 288,242 plays. But it's a song that Bleek is totally absent from, featuring vocals from only Jay Z.
But this instance of Jay Z’s eclipsing shadow barely scratches the surface of what Bleek was getting at when he vented about Jay in an interview earlier this month. Bleek cited Jay’s notorious verse on a 2005 remix of Kanye’s “Diamonds” as something that flustered his rap hustle: “Bleek could be one hit away his whole career/As long as I’m alive, he’s a millionaire/And even if I die, he’s in my will somewhere/So he could just kick back and chill somewhere.” Nearly a decade after that verse, Bleek’s lamenting that the persistent hype of that one-hit-away stardom scrambled his odds—and that, in general, Jay's imperial success has dwarfed Bleek's contributions to the Roc-a-Fella legacy. "[It’s] as if my career didn't happen," Bleek said.
When The Breakfast Club interviewed Jay Z during a promo for Magna Carta Holy Grail, Charlamagne asked him about Bleek's floundering ambitions. Jay plead a big brother's mercy:
“It's almost a little brother syndrome—and he had it more so than anybody because he really grew up with me...So he had my shadow on him the whole time.”
Jay's "retirement" in 2003 might have opened some room for Bleek to toss his fitted into the ring. But consider the roster he was up against: Beanie Sigel, who was fresh from a spree of cypher-grimey guest verses and whose debut album The Truth critically outflanked Bleek’s own, Coming Of Age; Cam'ron, an absurdist thug with his own dramatic flair; Kanye West, who burst forth from behind the boards. Any high school marching band chump will have you know, last chair is rough billing.
And then the R.O.C. Boys broke up. The label splintered and collapsed by 2005, just as Bleek was dropping his fourth studio album. By then, most of the junior roster was floundering. The Diplomats hit the escape pod. State Property disintegrated. Bleek dropped 534, went Gold, and was minimally heard from as time went.
But I come to praise Bleek, not to bury him.
Even though he was dwarfed by an all-star cast of labelmates and rivals at the time, Bleek still dropped scattershot gems. My favorite Memphis Bleek track is "What You Think Of That?," though mostly for the creeping brass on the beat. Favorite Bleek verse? From "It's Alright" on Jay Z's Streets Is Watching soundtrack. "Marcy to Hollywood" is another dusty cut that's always worth revisiting. And if you're looking for gold from Bleek's second act, his last two R.O.C. albums are laced with a few dope beats and worthy verses: "Just Blaze, Bleek and Free," "Murda Murda," "Alright," "Like That." As for classics, Bleek's at least held his own on a few, including the aforementioned “It’s Alright,” as well as "1-900-Hustler," and "Celebration." And never forget, "Is That Yo Chick?"
Hip-hop lore features a slum village of less-regarded rappers, sometimes assumed to be shooters and/or weed carriers for the big homies. In this hallowed pantheon, Bleek still weighs a class or two heavier than half of the old Roc roster, and 90 percent of the Wu Tang confederacy, and Cadillac Tah.
Not everybody thrives solo. Word to MC Ren.
Bleek's no legendary emcee. But he rode with a legendary crew. Not bad for a guy who learned to rap at fourteen, approximately five minutes before he traded a hook and two verses on Reasonable Doubt.
Memphis Bleek was Juelz Santana before Juelz Santana. Respect.
Unfortunately, in his latter-day R.O.C. tenure, Bleek never hopped on a track with Kanye—and indeed, there's some minor forensic evidence of a riff between the two. A shame, really. Gotta learn to live with regrets.