Music

AZ: Undeniable

Anthony Henriques

AZ releases yet another high-quality, even accessible album that is sure to fly completely under the radar of the mainstream, fueling the argument that he is one of the most underrated rappers ever.


AZ

Undeniable

Label: Koch
US Release Date: 2008-04-01
UK Release Date: Available as import
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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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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