AZ is a ninja-Zorro-pirate-samurai-Neo-Tony Montana-Shaft-ass mofo on the mic, for serious!"
Anthony Cruz: AZ. Looks like he's going to live up to his name and live this game from beginning to end, surviving, even thriving, at the periphery of the attention spans of rap fans, blowing the minds of thousands while other rappers half as dedicated make it into the brains of millions. He is probably the most fucked-over artist to maintain a career. When an AZ album has dropped, it's always been fish scale, if you know what I mean: High quality and hard to find. Since Doe or Die in 1995, there's been five AZ albums in total. AZ has survived so many disruptions and errors on the corporate side of his career that you have to be suspicious. When Jay-Z talks about putting "a few careers on hold," was he talking about AZ? Jay-Z, AZ, and Nas. The further away from New York you got, the more confusing this trinity became. When Nas stumbled, Jay-Z took reign, and AZ was exiled. Indirectly or not, the stratospheric success of Hova saw Sosa go into hiding. AZ named his label Quiet Money, and considering the extremely muffled publicity that's been used for most of his previous records, it fits him well.
Fizzy Womack's incredible old school break for "AZ's Chillin'" has made it one of the biggest surprises of the year, and a favorite addition to mix tapes. First hearing it, you'll swear it's a bomb hit from '91 that's been forgotten. But no, it's a staticy, fat, bludgeoning beat from 2005, and it is the living spirit of hip hop. The beat used on "City of Gods" (presumably at the last minute considering that the internet "white label" version I heard off blogs months ago featured a superior production) is a smooth soulful contrast to the nut-tightening rhymes AZ has going at full automatic. This beat by Diasco D isn't that much different, but somehow it feels really cheap compared to the rap by AZ, which is so blinding it's pointillist.
Hope niggas respect my dealings, if not
Hope not then I, catch no feelings
When you start hearin' niggas left, stressed in buildings
Cold killings, old villains now surfacin'
In yo' vicinities, enemies circlin' in sin
Praise I, unfold the untold like De La,
No soul since 12 summers old stayed high
Weed connoisseur, then rocked designer du'jours
Armanah, my persona was raw
No flaws it's federal fucker the cells is tapped
No calls from a double due, been to hell and back
So know yours, 'cause I could never just sell you raps
This is my life laid on wax...
Great production on "Still Alive", with the kind of techno-rugged we associate with the new New York sound. Underground New York MCs like AZ have always needed to balance their albums between the two major scenes: the post-Native Tongues melodic style typically sold by the likes of J-Live and Oddisee, and the grimey side of RZA and DJ Premier. "Still Alive" is a whole other beast. Produced by Vinny Idol for Black Thumba, it sounds like a squeaky Heatmakerz number. And Heatmakerz appear on this AZ album, too. This is the future sound of New York. Heatmakerz are not only influential, they're now among the most sought-after production teams out there, thanks to the support and brilliance of Harlem's Cam'ron and The Diplomats, who nurtured their rugged, Marilyn Manson/Motown/Mad Max/Matrix style. "Never Change" is a stunning, soulful, and classic beat, and AZ delivers a truly outstanding rhyme for it. The song reads like a classic short story, and AZ is a master storyteller. His rhymes can be abstract and violent, and they can be personal and evocative on a level that is almost unparalleled. In "Never Change", AZ recalls stopping on a street-corner in his old neighborhood. At a local basketball court, he meets up with an old friend he hasn't seen a while. So over a gemstone of a beat by the inimitable Heatmakerz, AZ sets it up in the intro:
"Yo A[Z], What's Goin' on?"
"Yo, Yo, what up, baby boy"
"Ooooooh what's the deal, my nigga?"
"Look at you, uh-uh you lookin' like money."
"You know what it is."
"Yeah, you know what it is."
"It's been 2 or 3 years, right?"
"I know, it's been a minute right?!"
"I know, man, listen here."
"It's all good though, you know I'm maintanin'."
"You looking good though, baby boy."
"I mean, whatever."
"Let's get some money."
"Let's get it poppin'."
"Alright, well, I'm with you."
"Gimme your number."
"Here go, my number right here."
Okay, that's beautiful dialogue, all of it spoken by AZ. It's a little confusing what he's doing, but he's about to go into a really fucking solid verse, and the intro, in retrospect, is a stunning slice of "street dialogue," worthy of a Tarantino or Singleton film. First verse:
You know the happenin's, homies just yappin' and
Hand-shaking, laughing, and exchanging all they math again
You usually lose touch when you traveling
A few dudes bruise up in the battlein'
Parked on Madison, Across from the Radisson
We talked about the tatteling some niggas did in Maryland
Plus discuss, no homicides unraveling
I asked was he dabbling, He laughed and said he managing
His Cardi frames was as clear as a camera lens
He hardly changed, I was near in comparison
We joked about how police choked him out
And he claimed as far as fame I had 'nough to bust in Oprah's mouth
In other words I was up in clout
And from the curb I need to pull a Larry Bird before I'm up and out
Without a sound sound, snatched my Guinness off the ground
Rose up, gave him a pound I told homie hold it down
And to drive it home, the hook goes thus:
You know the game
Insane in the brain
Rick James in the veins
Real niggas never change
And though we homies and we no longer hang
You know you know me and that love still remains
So through the fame through the fire and the flames
I adapt to the pain
Real niggas do the same
And though we homies and we no longer hang
You know you know me and that love still remains
That's a beautiful bit of poetry, right? And by this point in the song, the nostalgia is dripping off it like rain from broken storm drain. People turn their beers to the floor for these kinds of lyrics, starting to feel a tear on the cheek that isn't a tattoo. This is beautiful and poignant writing about the friendships that remain between old friends, even while paths in life diverge. Of course, like any great rap song, it also fits with one of the main themes in rap lyrics: street credibility. And AZ is not above boasting. "In other words I was up in clout," is a primo bit of rap boasting - subtle words, but the story itself is so real; he doesn't need to be blunt. Young Jeezy says the same thing like this: "The street loves Jeezy, and I love them back. And if I still had to work I'd front you a sack." Jeezy has created an entirely new kind of blues music compared to the forked-tongue snake-as-fuck complicated and masterful MCing that AZ is doing. It's Iceberg Slim to Ralph Ellison, the full panorama of rap lyricism. Jeezy is like a smart dude with an ugly bruise on his heart. AZ is like a Nobel Prize winning rap lyricist.
The reason for such high praise of his lyrical strength on "Never Change" is because of what happens next: AZ is hanging out with a nice girl, and then heading out to buy some sneakers. A friend calls him on his cell phone to tell AZ that the guy he was just hanging out with on the basketball court has been shot. "It was homie from the old clique I just seen and just spoke with. Oh shit, this can't be serious. It's my word."
That's good writing, and the whole album is on this level. Is it as good as Doe or Die? Yes. And by some measure, better. The young AZ was writing from the heart, and the thing that holds his debut album up to repeated listens is the feeling that AZ was rapping like someone who could only imagine being dead if he wasn't in the studio. There was a kind of morbid acceptance of his most probable fate. It was perfect for the times, and it made AZ seem like the most existential of the trinity. AZ sounded like a wanted man on that record. On A.W.O.L., AZ writes like an expert on survival. Where the young AZ saw only escape, the AZ of 2005 knows a lot more about how to get by in the world. His skills for observation, wordplay, and breath control should be studied by NASA for signs of extra-terrestrial code.
There are a few guests on the album, and it's like a hushed meeting of great mob bosses. Ghostface and Raekwon appear on "New York", CL Smooth is on "Magic Hour", and Bounty Killer appears on "Envious". But AZ carries most of the album, and at fifteen songs, there's nothing wasteful. If the beat gets hypnotizing, you go back for a second listen to catch the lyrics, and if the beat gets a little too hypnotizing again, you go back for a third listen to catch the lyrics, and before you know it, you're able to rap along with the chorus, and then, as the verses become clear, you realize the intricacy of his writing. A decade into the rap game, AZ still sounds like a grunt on the frontlines, on the verge of stardom and still dealing with the problems of the old life. If this earns him respect, it isn't just from the street. People connect to real artistry, and if enough people hear this album, then AZ is about to see a lot more attention. One of the top ten albums of the year, AZ will stay in print longer than most of today's first-week million sellers. 50 Cent albums are going to smother used CDs bins for decades to come, while people will always be buying AZ, like with Thelonious Monk. And a half a century from now, I bet Thelonious Monk and AZ will be again be written about in the same sentence.