The cover art for AZ’s new album Undeniable shows the hip-hop elder statesman seated, surrounded by the smoke of a cigar in his hand, with a glass of red wine standing next to the bottle it was poured from, reading the New York Times. This, coupled with his sweater-over-collared-shirt garb, appears designed to invoke images of maturity and high class. The only odd thing is that he appears to be sitting in a run-down, old wooden shack. This could be intended to perpetuate the mafia parallel which he has often utilized in his lyrical narratives; mobsters typically indulge in high-society and conduct business in low-profile locations. But it also offers a pretty good allegory for AZ’s rap career. For about 15 years, this guy has been considered amongst rap’s elite by hip-hop fans, though he has never experienced the level of glamour enjoyed by some of his contemporaries. So here he is, still making high-quality music and still going relatively unnoticed.
Undeniable generally continues the trend of creating consistent, East-Coast hip-hop that AZ has set since going the independent route with his last two albums. It is decidedly softer and more accessible than either A.W.O.L or The Format, as the beats are mostly built around ‘70s soul. Drawing from such a well-worn technique ensures musical consistency, but also keeps the sound of the production slightly unremarkable. There is not a single bad beat here, yet nothing sounds all that innovative.
Standouts on Undeniable can almost be selected at random. “Dead End” is probably the most upbeat song on the album, with a Jackson Five-sounding beat from Street Radio giving it a similar feel to Jay-Z’s “Izzo”. “Now I Know”, produced by Nottz, employs the hardest-sounding beat on the album. It lets up on each chorus, yielding to soft, female vocals, jazzy flutes, and AZ softly laughing. These transitions between turbulence and eerie calm give the song a sublime feel. “A. Game”, with its minimalist, old-school, Fizzy Womack beat, is the farthest the album deviates from soulful smoothness.
The most amazing thing about Undeniable is that AZ is still emceeing at an exceptionally high level. Just about every verse he raps showcases the effortless internal rhyming and smooth flow he has been lauded for ever since he first appeared with his iconic verse on Nas’ “Life’s a Bitch” in 1994. Those familiar with the decline of many of hip-hop’s greats will recognize the height at which AZ is still performing as no small feat. Picking standout verses is like drawing from a deck of aces with a few jacks mixed in. He hardly ever lets up throughout the album.
Missteps on Undeniable are few; more specifically, there are two. I guess those in charge of managing this project felt that naming a song with a phrase that was popular in hip-hop about seven or eight years ago would give it commercial viability. Such is the case with “Parking Lot Pimpin’”, a track that sounds fine in the context of the album, but whose title and repetition of it in the chorus give it an unnecessary level of corniness. “Go Getta” suffers a similar predicament. Its title and chorus are a straight-up rip-off of Young Jeezy’s 2006 hit of the same name. And it features Koch label-mate Ray J assuming the role R. Kelly held in the original – literal evidence of the former’s shameless quest to emulate the latter. Despite this almost-obvious, label-orchestrated promotional stunt, “Go Getta” is actually a good song. The J. Garfield beat is incredibly smooth. And when AZ is on the microphone, reminiscence to one of his greatest songs, “The Essence”, comes naturally.
Some might knock AZ for a lack of subject matter, but he avoids repeating himself, with a substantial depth of charisma and constantly changing rhyme-schemes. Undeniable’s themes hardly digress from the love-of-life, celebratory braggadocio that hip-hop culture was built upon, which was taken to an apex by Jay-Z.
In fact, drawing parallels between Jay-Z and AZ can be quite eerie. One rose to unprecedented heights in the world of hip-hop while the other has remained under mainstream’s radar for virtually his entire career. From their similar sounding stage-names to their comparable rapping techniques to the fact that they both rose to popularity in virtually the same hip-hop scene at the same time, it almost seems that the fortunes of these two could have been switched – at least until one considers Jay’s immaculate business savvy. Still, the comparison makes AZ’s mainstream failure seems like a simple case of never being in the right place at the right time. Judging by the quality of an album like Undeniable, it is amazing he hasn’t lost inspiration…even though, after all these years, he is still sitting in some wooden shack-looking place instead of a 40/40 club.
// Notes from the Road
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