We’re going back. Back to the essence of what makes an artist who he is. Back to the source, back to Brooklyn, back to Marcy. Memphis Bleek is taking us back to building 534.
The long-time Roc-A-Fella lieutenant returns with his fourth album, 534, named in honor of the place that formed him. Featuring production by Swizz Beats, Just Blaze and underground hip-hop sensation, 9th Wonder, and appearances by Jay-Z and M.O.P., this album is the most crystal clear representation of Bleek that you’ll hear.
While the making of Bleek’s last album, M.A.D.E., was clouded by personal troubles concerning the health of his brother, 534 was produced with the kind of clarity that only a true artistic hunger can provide.
The recording of the album began at the home of Roc-A-Fella A&R (and engineer extraordinaire) Gimmel “Young Guru” Keaton. Before Keaton had even set up house, Bleek was, quite literally, in the building. According to Keaton, it was a bare bones studio set up and a few floor heaters. Keaton tapped his go to production sources, like Just Blaze and 9th Wonder, and Bleek recorded the blueprint for the album.
According to Bleek, the setup was key to defining the tone of the album, “I just wanted to get back to the place where I started. Go back to what I’m all about. It’s like when I first started rhyming. I had a friend who was a DJ and we’d make records at his place. We’d use the headphones as a microphone. We just wanted to be making music; we had to be doing it. We were that hungry.”
This unpretentious hunger is the theme of the album. From the stark black and white cover art, to the remarkably consistent dark soul sound, 534 is the kind of consistent statement that is all too rare in contemporary hip-hop.
After the album-opening, “Dear Summer,” by Jay-Z, in which the God MC passes the baton to his protégé, Bleek proceeds to give the album-long performance that believers always knew he had in him.
On the lead single, “Like That,” Bleek expertly rides a skipping Swizz Beats track. You can file the song next to the stack of infectious singles that Bleek has punched out over his career, from, “Round Here,” to, “Is That Your Chick.” And for those of us who can’t get through a week without some punchlines dipped in venom, Bleek addresses the beef and the hate on “Hater Free,” taking a rather refreshing non-confrontational route.
According to Bleek, “I’m not concerned with all that stuff, man. I’m worried about myself and my fam, I’m not trying to get into contests with these other rappers and these haters.” To that end, Bleek brushes it all off his shoulder, with lines like, “I ain’t got no hate, just some great advice: keep getting money, live your life.”
Throughout the album Bleek displays a refined and tightened flow, and a new lyrical dexterity. He uses his shined up skills for some ol’ “how about some hardcore,” with label mates, M.O.P., on “First, Worst, Last,” where he holds his own with his fellow Brooklynites’ particular brand of, “fiyah!”
The real pleasure of 534, however, is the emotional depth that Bleek finds on songs like, “Straight Path,” a chilling picture of loss and the tug of war between the trife life and the straight path. It’s a stark portrait of a life where, “when the gun burn, everything thing you were taught, you must unlearn,” as Bleek breaks it down with desolate wisdom.
It’s the kind of insight that an artist can only find when he breaks everything down to essentials, to the essence. “I feel like in some ways, this is like the first album of a new career,” says Bleek. “It’s like this is an opportunity for me to kind of remind everyone where I’m coming from, and who I am. I’m ready, man. I already ate what they gave me on the plate, and I’m ready for more.” Memphis BleekJay-ZM.O.P.