As the 1990’s dawned, rap slowly but surely began to lose its carefree spirit. It hadn’t been without a care since “The Message,” but there was now a serious undertone to many records that hadn’t been there before. Rap focused more on the negative side of things and even began to indulge in nihilism. At the same time those who career-wise had come up in the late ’80s grew older and more responsible. Songs like Ice Cube’s “Lil Ass Gee,” South Central Cartel’s “Lil Knucklehead” or Too $hort’s “So You Wanna Be a Gangster” portrayed characters younger and in many ways less stable than the rappers themselves. The Wu-Tang Clan (“Can It Be All So Simple”) and The Notorious BIG (“Things Done Changed”), debuting artists who were already older, compared their own childhood to the hardships the next generation was facing. Who in turn didn’t hesitate to send its own witnesses on the stand, most notably Mobb Deep, who in 1992 reported live from “Juvenile Hell.”
Staten Island’s Shyheim referred to them as “The Lost Generation,” kids who had already seen it all. Poetically gifted Queens rapper Nas became the voice of this new generation, but it was the only guest on his debut “Illmatic” who summed up their mentality with his verse on the song “Life’s a Bitch,” setting a standard for both guest appearances in general and first impressions in particular. “Visualizin’ the realism of life and actuality,” he came to the conclusion that “a person’s status depends on salary.” Instead of rejecting this reality, he embraced it, promising his less fortunate peers to succeed where they had failed: “Some restin’ in peace and some are sittin’ in San Quentin / others such as myself are tryin’ to carry on tradition.”
Anthony Cruz has been carrying on that tradition ever since. If ever you should wonder why some rappers are so obsessed with getting money, treat yourself to the song “Sugar Hill” off his own debut to get an understanding for why someone would strive to “enjoy how life’s supposed to treat ya.” AZ has also been chasing the ghost of “Life’s a Bitch,” even naming his publishing company after it. As he said in 2001: “Where I been, that’s the key question / Niggas yellin’: “Keep reppin’!” / I must’ve left some kind of deep impression.” If you consult the RapReviews.com archives, AZ only seems to have solidified that impression with his first five albums that span a decade from 1995 to 2005. He’s rated with an 85% average, on a scale to 10 never scoring below 8, which I take as meaning that all reviewers were thoroughly satisfied with his work. To this day I think that “Doe or Die” was an exceptional debut. Personally I found both “Pieces of a Man” (1998) and “9 Lives” (2001) disappointing and I viewed “Aziatic” (2003) as a return to form, while somehow missing out on the acclaimed “A.W.O.L.” (2005).
Now AZ is back once again with “The Format,” the second release on his Quiet Money label (which he’s been promoting since “9 Lives”). With his sixth album, AZ establishes himself as one of the most consistent and consequent rappers of all time, joining the likes of Scarface, E-40 and Too $hort in that regard. True to his 2001 credo “I play different, I put in work, stay consistent,” Sosa stays his course. After initially having trouble warming up to it, I am glad to report that this will not be the album to interrupt the East New Yorker’s warm reception at RapReviews. I however have to note that I’m reviewing a promotionally edited CD that lacks the track “Games” listed on the retail version.
Even so I can attest that “The Format” is largely up to par. Emile, who has done tracks for everybody from Terror Squad to Obie Trice, provides him with vocal-fueled soul on “Get High,” “Game of Life” and “Make Me!” Fizzy Womack, also known as MOP’s Lil Fame, chops up “Mary Jane” for “Sit ‘Em Back Slow” and opens the album with “I Am the Truth,” laced with slightly formulaic soul strings and lacking the drive of MOP productions, but containing a short yet surprising break. Statik Selektah offers as much introspection as a producer possibly can on “Animal” with a beautifully sculpted piece of melancholic music topped by the Biggie quote “I been in this game for years, it made me a animal.” After last year’s “The Come Up” DJ Premier contributes again, this time to the title track, a safe for the cutting atypical Primo beat whose hypnotic, haunting new wave keyboard makes for an unusually dark background. More often that not, however, “The Format” gives a rather familiar interpretation of New York rap. If it weren’t for a couple of musical surprises, it might as well be called “The Formula.” Fizzy Wo opts for the most simplistic reconstruction of Jimmy Spicer’s “Money (Dollar Bill Y’all)” on “Doing That!” And two out of three J. Cardim productions (“Vendetta,” “This What I Do”) could have been on any East Coast release of the past five years.
However, Cardim also oversees “Rise & Fall,” an unexpected collaboration between AZ and the Little Brother MC’s. Over grounded and at the same time soaring orchestration Phonte spits his detailed true-to-the-game rhetoric, while AZ takes a clue from Pooh and drops a chilling verse on the dog-eat-dog mentality of drug dealing. Other guests (Fresh, Jha-Jha) aren’t nearly as inspiring, so it’s up to Brownsville’s MOP to test their fellow Brooklynite’s gangsta on “Sit ‘Em Back Slow,” and while not on their level of intensity, he proves that he can adapt to a more hostile environment.
In terms of the vocals, AZ is perfectly at ease as expected, delivering with the accustomed rhyme-heavy flow. Lyrics and attitude indicate he’s still hungry. On songs like “I Am the Truth” and “Make Me!” AZ presents himself as a survivor, as someone who has persevered: “The one and only, still intact without the Matrimony.” But he’s also amped to exclaim that his “mojo’s back (…) the flows show that.” Indeed it is astounding how someone can still rap in such a youthful tone and at the same time claim, “Since a kid at Fresh Fest I been fresh to def.”
There are two sides to AZ’s consistency. In the mid-’90s he was one of the rare rappers I thought capable of getting even better with time. After all, didn’t he explicitly “fuck with those beyond my age bracket / cause they analyze and map to get the papers and stack it”? Didn’t his “caliber” have him “thinkin’ on a higher algebra”? Instead, many of his then less promising peers left him trailing behind. At times it was hard to make out the self-described Visualiza who was once “like a coke rush, vivid enough to make livin’ this a must.” The sharp lyricism of “Rather Unique” made way for jumbled stream-of-consciousness sentences on too many songs to name.
On “The Format,” AZ is still not all he can be. He rides with the given concept on “Get High,” bragging about drugs, guns, gear, girls, and cribs. On one song he considers himself “too mature to be worried at all ’bout rim size,” on the next he’s “showroom shoppin’, coppin’ rims.” Only a chosen few can in one song convince you that they’re “venomous with the verbal attack” and “top shelf – what else.” Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap for instance (who both are name-checked on this album). This is not to criticize AZ for his unique standpoint. “Some men see things the way they are and say why. I see things that never was and say why not,” he explained the moniker The Visualiza on “Aziatic.” AZ will always, to a certain point, be a dreamer. As such he will ever so often be stuck in a self-congratulatory pose. He’ll be tempted to stay in his rap star bubble.
So when he does come out of his shell, it’s all the more touching. On “Game of Life” he lets us know that “ain’t no winners in this game of life” as he recognizes the force of circumstances we’re all subject to. He reassumes his role as voice of a lost generation on “Animal” as he reflects on street life with veteran flair (“The stakes is high, the bids is long (…) you live, you gone”). “This What I Do” finally sees him acting as a rap representative, speaking on behalf of all of us in one uninterrupted verse that talks about a life intertwined with hip-hop and hustling, concluding that “in order to obtain you gotta sacrifice.”
In the past AZ often failed to live up to expectations. In 2006, AZ keeps his word. The promise of a independently thinking New York rapper with his ears to the street and his eyes on the prize is fulfilled this time. What on “What Cha Day About” was put in a nutshell, “The Format” delivers at full-length: “Young in the mind with a old spirit / Hot blood with a heart that’s so frigid / Melodic music expressed through slow lyrics.”