Jay-Z is a man of many nicknames. So when he starts to prefer, say, Coach Carter over J-Hova, Jigga, and the King of New York, there must be a good reason. Here’s one: As the new president of Def Jam Records, Jay is hoping that he can finally lead a squad of artists to some big wins—something he could never quite pull off when he was merely an owner of Roc-A-Fella. Most rap fans know that such junior-varsity Roc talents as Memphis Bleek and Young Gunz will probably never make it to the big dance without some serious support from the sidelines. But the thing no one seems to be talking about is that Jay-Z’s abilities as a leader are just as dubious.
Think about it: Along with fellow Roc-A-Fella honchos Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, our man never produced a superstar—other than Jay-Z himself—after running the label for nearly a decade. The trio can be partly credited with discovering shameless self-promoter Kanye West, who could one day attain Jay-Z’s level of success. But West was a producer, not a rapper, when he first linked up with the label, and he famously had to beg to get on the mike. Remember the flameout of the Roc’s sole lady lyricist, Amil? How about crooner Christion? Or pretty much any of the highly touted artists who debuted on the Streets Is Watching soundtrack? Of course not.
Bleek’s 534 and Young Gunz’s Brothers From Another are the first two Roc-A-Fella records released in conjunction with a Jay-Z-helmed Def Jam. Both projects were executive-produced by “the Carter Administration”—a fact that’s loudly announced right on each disc’s spine. But if the quick chart descents of both 534 and Brothers are accurate indicators, it seems that President Carter’s reputation isn’t enough to help a less-than-stellar album beyond the first-week numbers. Young Gunz appeared on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop charts at No. 4, and Bleek jumped on at No. 3. But barely a month later, the Gunnaz have fallen to No. 24 and M.EZ has landed at No. 32. In other words: They’re both getting their asses kicked not just by the Game, but by Will Smith.
Bleek’s fourth album, like each one of his previous efforts, includes a personal appearance by the commander in chief himself. Jay-Z has been attempting to pass his scepter to Bleek for years, but the young Brooklyn MC has always lacked the strength to carry it. On 534, the Prez tries to make the hand-off official on “Dear Summer,” which is roughly the fifth musical retirement party he’s thrown himself.
The track, a cheeky Dear Jane letter addressed to the season that was crucial to Jay-Z’s success, is almost good enough to justify the album all by itself. Over a fluid, chipper Just Blaze track, Hova reminisces about his many songs of summer and then bids his warm-weather woman adieu, explaining that he must focus all his attention on his “brand-new bitch, corporate America.” The whole thing is short, effortless, and sweet, right down to its final request: “[W]e had fun together/But like all good things, we must come to an end/Please show the same love to my friends.”
And with that, we’re booted out of Jay-Z’s world and thrust into Bleek’s with 534’s first single, “Like That.” It’s immediately apparent that Bleek’s universe is much louder and more party-centric. The Swizz Beatz track is, as most Swizz Beatz tracks are, frenetic and busy, crammed with every Pro Tools extra imaginable. But the producer does do one special thing for the disc’s ostensible star: He helps cut the tie that binds Bleek to Hova by dropping one of his most recent, and best, innovations—building beats around Jay-Z catchphrases, something he has done for artists such as T.I. and Cassidy.
Lines such as “Make move like the Matrix when dude was stuck in slugs/Bleek the black sheep, mami, now pick it up,” aren’t exactly poetic, but then, Bleek doesn’t often deviate from partying and bragging. Cue 534’s producers, the best of whom is North Carolinian 9th Wonder, who’s emerging as the anti-Kanye—just as talented but satisfied to let the work speak for itself. “Smoke the Pain Away” has at its center a humming, persistent, mutated Billy Paul sample that sounds not unlike the hypnotic noise of a kid singing into a whizzing fan. And “Alright” has the sort of rallying fight-song beat that the Roc la Familia always triumphs with—just one way that 9th soothes the album’s many lyrical bumps and bruises.
The guest appearances, however, aren’t of the same caliber as the production. Some, such as the M.O.P. help-out on “First, Last and Only,” are fun and energetic. (Bleek, a chronic shouter, seems downright tranquil when put up against the Brownsville screamers.) But R&B singer Rihanna does little to spice up “The One,” and lyricist Boxie is unable to save the sappy “just for the ladies” vibe of “Infatuated”—all of which merely underscores that this is the same old Bleek we’ve come to know and tolerate: capable, mildly satisfying, and usually only as good as the producer he’s fronting or the guest he’s hosting. As hard as he may try, he just doesn’t measure up to the man who would make him king.
Despite the shortcomings of 534, its bright spots may be as good as a Jay-Z protégé can muster these days. In the new Roc roster, which no longer includes incarcerated Dash defector Beanie Sigel, Bleek is one of the strongest players. Two guys who certainly won’t be carried on their teammates’ shoulders are Philadelphia natives Young Chris and Young Neef, born Christopher Ries and Hanif Muhammad and better known as Young Gunz.
Like their first album, last year’s Tough Luv, Brothers From Another has at least one club-ready single going for it. “Set It Off” is another one of Swizz’s everything-he-could-get-his-hands-on casseroles. It features a loud whistle, fake hand claps, some rhythmic shouts, and a deep, dominating bass line. Like the producer, Chris and Neef are all about sound effects—sighing, whooping, panting, whatever. Sadly, it seems that the duo spends far more time trying to figure out how to fill their songs with interesting noises rather than interesting words.
Chad “Wes” Hamilton, who’s credited with most of the production on the album, makes a better counterpoint for the Gunz than the Ruff Ryders’ beat-maker. His track for “The Knock Is There” is especially fine, with its tiny instrumental bursts taken from the Ohio Players and the subject-appropriate sound of knocking blocks. And although it’s not the case on the rest of the record, the lyrics here measure up to the music. “Better learn how to handle your stacks/Or you’ll be cramped in the back,” the Gunz rhyme. “Gambling stacks, try’na scramble it back/Ain’t no goddamn fam in this trap/…Y’all just handle the promotion, and we handle the rap.”
Hamilton seems to love all manner of retro beats and bells and whistles. Some are grating, such as the ’80s-style keys on “Tonight” and the syncopated Coke-bottle percussion of “Don’t Stop (YG Party),” but most are a cut above the rhymes that they punctuate. Aging R&B act 112 is featured on “Don’t Keep Me Waiting (Come Back Soon),” and the Gunz give the group a cringeworthy shout-out over Hamilton’s electric-guitar strums lifted from a Luther Vandross song: “Late night, we fucking to some ‘Cupid’/No wining and dining/I hit from behind and/Now she part of the diamond/I got her part-timin’/Baby father home with the kids putting time in/She laid back blushin’, rushin’ for me to climb in her.” Elsewhere, West and John Legend generously lend their time and energies to “Grown Man Pt. 2,” but Chris and Neef’s lyrics are—could it be?—not even on a par with West’s: “I been strapped, prepared for the head/Brought a bib just in case she don’t swallow/It’s for the kids.”
The album finishes with “We Still Here,” featuring, yes, Memphis Bleek. The track gives all three of Jay-Z’s chosen ones the chance to explain to listeners that they’ve been here for years and plan on sticking around for many more. Theoretically, it should also give them an opportunity to deliver some rhymes that will allow them to stand on their own six feet. The Gunz don’t exactly seize it: “How the fuck they gonna stop us?” they ask. “Hov backin’ us up.” For the moment, yeah. But if Coach Carter wants to keep his job, he’ll be making a few substitutions soon enough.CP