When he was, by his own account, a teenage hustler growing up in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects, Memphis Bleek was already being groomed to fill a void. The proclamations came hard and heavy; Bleek would be the new and improved Jay-Z—a hustler turned rapper like no other. Strangely prophetic rumblings, they failed to materialize in any sort of tangible success. In the coming years, Bleek released three albums garnering some underground love while Jay-Z’s stock as a mainstream artist shot up. Add to that the pressure of having to watch your fellow labelmates, Philadelphia’s Beanie Siegel and Harlem’s Cam’ron, outstrip you in sales and pop appeal and you couldn’t fault Bleek if he was bitter. Squeezed into a supporting role, his records showed the inexperience of his young age. But for all the ills of the past, he’s upbeat and positive about his future and his upcoming album 534. After a brief hiatus, a well-rested Bleek is back to claim his title as heir to the Roc-A-Fella dynasty in this, his second coming of age.
PopMatters: Jay-Z handpicked you to be his successor; how do you feel you’ve filled his shoes so far?
Memphis Bleek: If I’ve filled Jay’s shoes, I only got the shoestring in the first hole. That’s been a big blessing for him to even mention me in that same vein as him and to even give me a title like that, like I’m the heir to throne. Plus, it’s been something that I’ve known back then that I wasn’t ready for. I was young. I didn’t understand what it really meant and how to maintain the respect that [Jay-Z] has. Just now as I’ve become a man and grown up, the things I’ve seen and learnt that I can really say right now—physically, mentally, spiritually—I’m ready for the title he gave me.
PM: At one point you left the game for three years. How do you feel that time away from the game, away from the glamour and glitz, has enabled you to come back and how do you think it affected your music?
MB: What it showed me is that it’s a real slim line between love and like. In hip-hop, there are a lot of fans who like you and then once they don’t like you there’s a new artist they like next. And then there’s a slim margin of people who love you and they sit back and wait till you come out no matter how many years it take you. I realized that I have a lot of love out there and that’s what inspired me and motivates me to get back in the studio. I got a lot of people out there waiting on me to say some real stuff [and] I hit the studio and just put it down for them.
PM: What should we expect from the new album?
MB: Us as rappers tend to smoke a little marijuana here and there. So I have a song called “Smoke the Pain Away”. It’s like a conscious record where I’m talking about some of my people that passed away and it’s just a good record about if you got problems just sit back and clear your mind man. And then I got a song called “Straight Path” where I wrote about one of my friends who passed away. It’s like a saying for all young people who come from the same environment I do and deal with the same problems of the street. Once you quit [hustling] and you have enemies don’t mean your enemies quit. If you think you’re gonna have a job and just be working and all the problems you had back in the days is just gone, that could never happen. That’s why I made the song, cause there’s no such thing as a straight path. And I got a song called “Hater Free” for people out there who like to judge on other people doings and not watch what they’re doing. It’s not your typical “bling bling” album or “cars with rims” album. There’s a lot of subject matter on this album.
PM: How do you think the new Roc-A-Fella matches up against the juggernaut that is Aftermath, Shady Records, G-Unit?
MB: Man, you hit it right on the head again… the juggernaut. We match them because lyrically, man, we up there man. Sales, they don’t reflect that because they out there putting a mud hole in Soundscan (laughing). We trying to get up there. As long as you get busy and go in that studio and spit that stuff, man, it’s gonna show at some point or time and they gonna have to let you through. They can’t keep you locked out forever. And I’m happy for the success that they had, because now it just shows other artists that it’s possible.
PM: How do you think Jay-Z, as president of Def Jam, is going to be able to help you move from underground emcee to where you’re recognized as a major player?
MB: There’s a thin line between crossing over and still being underground. And some people when they cross over, they don’t know how far they went, that there’s no going back to the underground. Jay basically coached me on that line where the guys like your girl records and the girls like your guy records. My second single is “Infatuated” and that’s going to be a big radio record. Then the first single “Like That”—it’s just fun, man. I don’t always have to talk about my Glock 9 or do this or my rims look like this. I could just talk the girls and say, “Move that body real slow, ma” and if the beat rocks, she gon’ move it.
PM: 534, what does that stand for?
MB: That stands for everything. That’s my life right there. That’s the building me and Jay-Z grew up in. Marcy Projects. 534 Flushing Ave. I named my album that because that represented the struggle during the time I was hungry, drinking sugar water, eating syrup sandwiches, and rice with ketchup. So I just wanted to get back in that zone… I’m hungry again.
PM: Twenty odd years after rap’s birth, the ghetto is still the ghetto, the hood is still the hood, and people have to do dirt to get by. As an artist who gets to talk about that life, how does that make you feel?
MB: It make me feel like if we knew what really lies ahead, what real opportunities of being a minority in the ghetto you really have, it’d be more wealthy people than starving people. Because they put us in an environment where not too much information about making it out comes by us and opportunity don’t come that often. And if people just understood to get out more and be social and be positive and speak to different people, different doors will be open for them.
PM: When 534 comes out what do you want people to know about Bleek?
MB: I want them to know that I’m mentally, lyrically, spiritually, the new dude at Roc-A-Fella Records. Jay gotta take the backseat this time, it’s my turn. He got fat while I starved.