When Memphis Bleek emerged from performing guest raps on Jay-Z's recording projects of the late 1990s with his own 1999 debut Coming of Age, he was promoted within the hip-hop industry as Jay-Z's anointed successor. Things didn't immediately work out as planned, and Bleek had trouble emerging from the long shadow cast by his famous mentor. By the mid-2000s, though, it was clear that Bleek had become something that rarely appeared in the hip-hop world: a consistent hitmaker. He had released four successful albums. And even if no one claimed that he ranked among hip-hop's great verbal virtuosos, he attracted several of the genre's top producers to work on his recordings, and dance clubs resounded with his music.
Bleek was born Malik Cox in the New York City borough of Brooklyn on June 23, 1978. The "Memphis" in his stage name was an acronym for "Making Easy Money Pimping Hoes in Style," and "Bleek," more innocently, was a representation of his little sister's attempts to pronounce his real first name. Bleek grew up in the Marcy Houses public housing project in Brooklyn, which were also home to the young Jay-Z. The streets around him were filled with violence, much of which showed up in the rarely varied gangster subject matter of his raps. But Bleek turned to music instead of turning to the streets. "I had a friend who was a DJ and we'd make records at his place," Bleek told Billboard. "We'd use the headphones as a microphone. We just wanted to be making music."
Indeed, Bleek told allhiphop.com interviewer Jigsaw, "I've been doing this [making music] since Krush Groove," referring to the 1985 film that brought hip-hop and Hollywood together for the first time. "I wrote so much in my life that I don't even write rhymes no more, I can just think about it and say it." Bleek dropped out of school to pursue music, but he later earned a GED. "I'm not an idiot," he told Jigsaw. "You got to know that dealing with people in meetings all day with you, and if [you're] not smart enough somebody will get over on you all the time. I never seen a dumb person win."
Well before his 20th birthday, Bleek was being heard on top hip-hop releases. His first recorded appearance was on the 1996 Jay-Z album Reasonable Doubt, and he was also a guest on the massive Jay-Z hit Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life. In 1999 expectations ran high, as Bleek became the first artist signed to Jay-Z's new Roc-a-Fella label and released Coming of Age. The album fell squarely into the turn-of-the-century gangster rap trend, mixing a generous dose of cocky attitude with irresistibly danceable rhythm tracks. Bleek recruited producer Swizz Beats to helm the single "Memphis Bleek Is," and he continued to work with Swizz Beats, among hip-hop's most noted contemporary producers, throughout his career.
USA Today writer Steve Jones opined that Bleek "comes into his own with this rock-solid debut ... [with] biting songs such as 'Everybody' and 'My Hood Is Your Hood' that help him keep things down and dirty." Keith Farley of All Music Guide called Coming of Age "a fine debut that shows Memphis Bleek already leaps and bounds ahead of most rappers." The album rose to number one on Billboard 's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and to number seven on the Billboard 200 tabulation of album sales in all genres. Bleek was featured in the 2000 documentary film Backstage, which chronicled Jay-Z's Hard Knock Life tour. Things seemed to fall off, however, with Bleek's sophomore release, The Understanding, released in 2000, despite the rapper's appearance with Jay-Z on the hit "Hey Papi" from the soundtrack of the film Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps. Some critics and listeners felt that Bleek hadn't broken new ground musically.
Bleek responded by taking three years off—a lifetime in the fast-changing world of hip-hop. When he returned with M.A.D.E. in 2003, the album's strong debut at number five on Billboard 's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart testified to the depth of his following. "M.A.D.E." was an acronym that stood for "Money Attitude Direction Education." Bleek kept mostly to the street themes of his earlier releases, but Jason Birchmeier of All Music Guide, while noting that Bleek had still fallen short of an independent star image, called the album "a definite step forward and a sure showcase of his growing maturity."
Some of that maturity came from events Bleek went through outside of the musical realm. His brother suffered brain injuries after a motorcycle crash and faced the prospect of paralysis on one side of his body, but eventually recovered almost completely. And Bleek himself became a father. "Having a child changed my life," he told Jigsaw. "I was there to see my son born. It makes you appreciate your mom 'cause you're like damn, she went through that for me."
Bleek continued to snare innovative producers on M.A.D.E., including Just Blaze, who was mentioned in the title of one track, "Just Blaze, Bleek & Free" (also featuring rapper Freeway). Another producer from the Roc-a-Fella stable who made an appearance was the fast-rising Kanye West, just in advance of his own breakthrough to stardom; West dipped into his bag of 1980s R&B to rework Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T." on "I Wanna Love U." Interview called the album "a diverse menu of rock, bhangra, and smooth R&B ... [with] a melange of layered beats that are sure to keep heads bopping."
As the release of Bleek's fourth album approached in 2005, there was a general feeling in the hip-hop community that it was make-or-break time for the rapper's career, and even Bleek himself admitted to nervousness. An arrest for beating up a busboy at a Manhattan club marred the run-up to the release of 534. The album took its title from the address of the Marcy Houses building in which Bleek grew up, and depicted the rapper on the cover, displaying a hand-woven cat's-cradle string figure. Once again top-flight producers—Swizz Beats, Just Blaze, 9th Wonder, and others—insured a compelling surface sound for the album, and Jay-Z made an appearance on the track "Dear Summer," seeming to pass the Roc-a-Fella torch to his protege.
Although many of the album's tracks stuck to Bleek's tried-and-true themes, there was one, "Straight Path," that reflected on the difficult task of leaving the street life for legitimate enterprises. The reviews for 534 were mixed, with David Peisner of Maxim finding "an energy that Bleek's previous outings lacked," while Entertainment Weekly 's Margeaux Watson heard only "an uneven mix of contrived party songs and well-produced yet lyrically insipid street tales."
Ultimately, Bleek's long-term survivor status seemed to reflect his sheer creative enthusiasm. "I just love to make music," he told allhiphop.com. "I don't just act like I want to make music, this is what I do. If you ask me what I do on a daily basis, everything is music. All I do is stay in the studio. I hang out there, I sleep there, I live there. I have one in my house. Everywhere I go, there's Pro Tools and a microphone."
For the Record . . .
Born Malik Cox on June 23, 1978, in Brooklyn, NY; children: one son.
Appeared on Jay-Z album Reasonable Doubt, 1996; made other guest appearances; signed to Roc-a-Fella label; released Coming of Age, 1999; appeared in hiphop documentary Backstage, 2000; released The Understanding, 2000; released M.A.D.E., 2003; released 534, 2005.
Addresses: Record company—Roc-a-Fella Records, P.O. Box 753, New York, NY 10108.
Coming of Age, Roc-a-Fella, 1999.
The Understanding, Roc-a-Fella, 2000.
M.A.D.E., Roc-a-Fella, 2003.
534, Roc-a-Fella, 2005.
Billboard, April 18, 2005.
Daily News (New York), April 29, 2005, p. 20; May 21, 2005, p. 28.
Entertainment Weekly, December 19, 2003, p. 76; May 20, 2005, p. 77.
Interview, July 2003, p. 31.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 26, 2003, p. E17.
Newsday (New York), April 29, 2005, p. A21.
USA Today, August 3, 1999, p. D7.
Washington Post, June 1, 2005, p. C5.
"Memphis Bleek," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 30, 2005).
"Memphis Bleek," Roc-a-Fella Records, http://www.rocafella.com (June 30, 2005).
"Memphis Bleek: Do or Die," AllHipHop, http://www.allhiphop.com/features/?ID=1034 (June 30, 2005).
"Memphis Bleek: Through the Fire," AllHipHop, http://www.allhiphop.com/features/?ID=564 (June 30, 2005).
"Review of 534," AllHipHop, http://www.allhiphop.com/reviews/?ID=575 (June 30, 2005).
"Review of 534, Maxim Onlinehttp://www.maximonline.com/entertainment/reviews/review_music_9771.html (June 30, 2005).
—James M. Manheim