AZ: A.W.O.L.

Lee Henderson

AZ is a ninja-Zorro-pirate-samurai-Neo-Tony Montana-Shaft-ass mofo on the mic, for serious!"



Label: Quiet Money
US Release Date: 2005-09-06
UK Release Date: Available as import
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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."
"No doubt."
"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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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