By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Richard Andrew watched Jay-Z's 2004 farewell tour on a DVD. Malik Cox saw it from onstage every night, at Jay's side.
Like many fans, Andrew had fun trying to predict what Jay's absence as an artist might mean to hip-hop. For Cox, better-known as Memphis Bleek, the speculation had a more practical cast. After years of being Jay-Z's right-hand man, he looked in line to ascend to the throne. And the best part was, his old friend Jay would now be running Def Jam to assist the new king. In the end, neither man seriously believed Jay-Z would stay retired. And one thing they both agree on today is that, in defiance of the odds, Jay has become a bigger star since his official 2006 return — a bigger star than he was when he bowed out prematurely six years ago, following a series of concerts that heightened the drama of his then-current release, The Black Album, to a perfectly tuned fever pitch.
"Yeah, Jay's bigger than what he was then. Jay's proof. C'mon, look at the records," Bleek says. "He's an international crossover now. He can go and have dinner with the president. He's a much bigger star than he was then. I think music has changed since then, that you can brand yourself to be a bigger voice than just an urban outlet."
Adds Andrew, a Yonkers native who's preparing his own hip-hop debut for Asylum/Warner under the name Outasight: "He's one of the most famous people in the world now. He transcends hip-hop."
Perhaps the true measure of a superstar, however, is the effect he has on other artists — those who have to make their own way in his considerable wake. The perspectives of Bleek and Andrew are different: The former is a veteran performer who's trying to once again scale the chart heights from the hinterlands of the indies, while the latter is an up-and-comer, signed to a major label and building buzz Tweet by Tweet, download by download, in a virtual-music world.
But for both, Jay's shadow, post-retirement, looms large indeed.
It's late on a Friday afternoon in the middle of Connecticut, and Memphis Bleek is running late. In about an hour, he'll take the stage at Mohegan Sun Casino as one of the opening acts on Jay-Z's The Blueprint 3 tour, but he isn't complaining. After five years out of the limelight, he's on the verge of releasing his long-promised new album, The Process, and sounds understandably enthusiastic to be back in the game.
"Finally," he says. "Finally is the right word. That's why I named the album The Process. Because it's been a process, nahmean?"
Of all the millions who speculated about whether Jay-Z would really do the unthinkable and quit music, perhaps no one had more reason to root for such an outcome than Bleek. By 2003 he'd already logged three albums and several years as Jay's faithful lieutenant, and some were already wondering whether he'd found his best role. Subsequent controversy over whom Jay "anointed" as his heir — one story has it that the scepter was to have been passed to the recently jailed Lil Wayne — must have stung Bleek. But when asked about his memories of the farewell tour, his voice turns almost blissful as he recalls a time before Jay-Z's once-mighty Roc-A-Fella empire, which included stars like Beanie Sigel, Freeway and Young Gunz, disintegrated acrimoniously.
"What I remember most was just that it was family, man. It was still a team then, before the breakup. There wasn't as much beef — it was still about the music. Music was fun then, in 2003," Bleek says, adding with a laugh, "Records was still sellin' then, too."
That's a reference to today's fractured and unpredictable musical landscape, but Bleek has largely missed the changes of the last half-decade. In 2005 he made what was to have been his post-Jay-Z splash, the album 534. But the release ended up being most notable as one, the debut of Rihanna, and two, the disc on which Jay guest-starred on a feature ("Dear Summer") that was basically an I'm-not-sure-I-can-really-stay-retired letter.
Last year, Bleek decided it was finally time to leave the nest. Taking Jay's advice, he left Def Jam, signed with the Boston-based indie Mass Appeal Entertainment and began bringing The Process to completion. And he says that this album — which he described five years ago as "make or break" — is much more so today.
"Every album is make or break. But this one is more pressure because it's all on my shoulders now. It's time for me to prove myself," he says, before launching into a roll call of names from his past life. "There's no big, strong machine like Def Jam and Universal backing it up. There's no radio promotion...there is no Jay-Z as the president of Def Jam and the executive producer of the album. There is no Dame Dash. There is no Kareem 'Biggs' Burke. There's no Beanie Sigel features, and Freeway and the Young Gunz. It's a lot of things that's different, so that's why there's more pressure."
And yet, to hear Bleek talk about his struggle to become his own man and his poignant admission that his old friend is the one person who will "never be satisfied" with any of his work, makes it seem clear that the main source of the pressure is one very famous artist who found that retirement didn't suit him at all.
At least Outasight's relationship with Jay-Z is far less complicated. As a teenager who calls Hova's 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt "the soundtrack of my high school years," Richard Andrew idolized Jay-Z from afar. But being a peer has brought Jay-Z — or at least, the challenge he represents to a new artist — much closer. Sometimes uncomfortably close, in fact.
Outasight acknowledges the huge advantage owned by any performer who made his name before the digital era splintered the musical world into countless shards of MP3s. If that artist happens to be a master of branding and self-promotion — as Jay-Z assuredly has proven to be — then the bar for a newcomer trying to become known can seem impossibly high.
"Sometimes," Outasight admits, "it's like running into a brick wall. The game has changed so much. It was a lot easier ten or fifteen years ago, I'm sure, because you didn't have all these things to worry about."
But as he celebrates the success of a recent mixtape, Further (available at iamoutasight.com), and prepares his Warner debut, Outasight tries to take heart from the continued dominance of Jay-Z, as well as more recent Internet-fueled success stories, such as the Canadian rapper Drake.
"Competition has always been the nature of the beast," Outasight observes. "And if you have records that resonate with people, then it doesn't matter how many people you're up against. I think there's room enough for everybody."
Perhaps. But as the testimonies of Memphis Bleek and Outasight attest, there will always be room for Jay-Z, at least.