Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Memphis Bleek & Guru

Jay-Z protégé Memphis Bleek is like a celebrity's son whose birthday party is only well-attended because his classmates hope to catch a peek at his famous father. Jay-Z anointed Bleek as his creative and commercial heir long ago, but the succession didn't take with critics or audiences, who have been as cool to Bleek as they've been passionate about his mentor. So it seems a little perverse that the one transcendent, attention-grabbing track on Bleek's new album, 534, doesn't feature so much as a single syllable from Bleek, but offers a heaping helping of Jay-Z. Yes, Jay-Z—who executive-produced the album under the amusing sobriquet The (Sean) Carter Administration—has blessed 534 not with his usual guest turn or two, but rather with an entire Jay-Z song. On "Dear Summer," Jay-Z—the most meta-rap superstar this side of Eminem, and easily the busiest retired rapper in recent memory—offers a bittersweet goodbye to the season he's dominated for close to a decade, while leaving the door open for his inevitable return.

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It's easily the album's best song and biggest selling point, but the rest of 534 is a surprisingly solid slab of pop-savvy gangsta rap rooted in the Roc-A-Fella hyper-soul sound: big, booming drums, dramatic soul samples, and sugary R&B hooks. Producer 9th Wonder laces "Smoke The Pain Away" with an infectious, mellow stoner groove, while on "First, Last And Only," M.O.P. rides shotgun and spits pure testosterone over squiggly, Moog-y synths and heroic horn blasts. Bleek's forgettable lyrics and aggressive delivery add little to commercial gangsta rap as a whole, but consistent, cohesive production and a few memorable guest appearances help make this a pleasant surprise. And with a running time of just under 50 minutes, it's the rare major-label rap album that doesn't wear out its welcome.

Like Bleek, veteran rapper Guru is familiar with the mixed blessing of being the less-respected half of a venerable partnership. It isn't easy emerging from the shadow of one of rap's greatest and most influential producers (just ask C.L. Smooth), so it makes sense that Guru's first few Jazzmatazz solo efforts boasted a built-in hook: a genre-mashing lineup of guest stars from far-ranging musical worlds, and an early embrace of organic neo-soul. Where the Jazzmatazz albums highlighted the musically progressive bohemian aspect of Guru's persona, his new Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures offers a grittier, more street-oriented, and less compelling side of Guru. Guru's Gang Starr partner DJ Premier is nowhere to be found; Solar produces every song. Usually, the one-producer/one-MC mold results in an appealing sonic consistency, but there's a troubling lack of cohesion to Solar's production, which veers from the trendy sped-up sampling of "Surviving Tha Game," which gives the Alvin And The Chipmunks treatment to Paul McCartney's "Live And Let Die," to the minimalist Wild West piano of "Don Status." Street Scriptures is far from an embarrassment, but it feels startlingly inessential, little more than a footnote in Guru's impressive career. Guru's razorblade rasp remains one of rap's most instantly recognizable, but on far too many of the tracks here, it qualifies as the only distinctive element. Guru recycles some of his vintage Gang Starr hip-hop quotables, but that mostly just underlines how desperately he needs his old partner in order to seem relevant again.

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