AZ's lack of wide-spread success remains inexplicable. He practically has dollar signs seared into his baby-face forehead. AZ deserves the swooning fans and flagrant, money tossing capabilities, not Jermaine Dupri, whose face looks like a mister potato head doll a three-year-old arranged in disarray. It's not just that AZ has paid his dues with interest, putting out four, near-classic solo albums and two group albums over only seven years, or the fact that his lyrical skills put most current rap stars to shame. It's that AZ flaunts all the right ingredients: he's business savvy, well-respected in the industry, street credited, skillful, and has patented a look for himself so fly it might drive Pretty Tony into a nervous buying binge for more tangerine-colored, fox fur snowcaps and obtrusive, animal insignia jewelry. AZ just seems naturally endowed for this business. Even the great Gods of rap, languidly relaxing atop Mount Interscope, could not recreate a character more perfectly tailored for mass-market success.
Must be the curse. Most sympathizers are familiar with AZ's story of woe: the only guest rapper to grace Nas's "Illmatic", which some hail as the greatest rap album of all time. But somehow in the album's aftermath AZ became subsequently perceived as Nas's sidekick instead of partner. A role he has been unable to shake ever since. Worse yet, AZ's own highly anticipated debut "Doe or Die", although widely held as a classic to its listeners, fell below sales expectations. All this continual disappointment could break a man. Rappers have abandoned their integrity for much less in this business. But AZ remained soundly confident in his abilities and focused on his goal to reach the top. As De La Soul said "everybody cools off from being hot, it's if you can take being cold or not." With his sophomore release, "Pieces of a Man", AZ poignantly picks up the shattered pieces of his dream and forges forward.
The album appropriately opens to a blues singer crooning "it's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life—for me." But before you can sink too deep into retrospection, the soulful soothsayer is overrun by a foreboding beat and AZ is off:
"Play the game for my people stay in charge of your dreams
Keep your vision focused, get wise, and largen your cream
Marketin' schemes, so many in the dark that's unseen
Caught inbetween, perhaps rap was a fortunate thing
Forced to be keen, from hustlin', supportin' them fiends
Bustin' guns, I had no remorse as a teen
Rockin' birth stones, my first, get bent nurse the dome
It hurts to zone, now I realize I'm on this Earth alone
Time ticks, devilish minds design tricks, leave you blind quick
Cause you to die behind shit, Math-e-matic
Master one twenty, I'm Asiatic
Amazed with magic, cuz it's illusions that made me savage
Life change once you establish the right game
Love the night rain, found a new way to fight pain
Clocks never stop, It's all a race to the top
Tryin' to freeze time, that's why I ice the face of my watch"
WHOA, that's dense. This degree of lyrical pedigree flows throughout the album. The opener explodes right into "I'm Known", another heater with an old school vibe courtesy of production by Goldfinga. "How Ya Livin'" is a nostalgic track where AZ and his old partner in rhyme Nas tradeoff verses back and forth about the past, while another old friend of theirs, L.E.S., laces the beat. Poke and Tone, better known as Trackmasters, lighten the mood with "Trading Places" and "What's The Deal", two house party anthems the ladies can step to. The industry may perceive AZ as an underground artist but he certainly doesn't make underground albums. AZ pumps out sex jams and club congenial material with an unforced, natural zeal; only further frustrating this listener as to why the radio continues to grant him minimal attention, almost as if they stamped him a second-rate star long ago.
Although there are plenty of party anthems to chose from, the overall mood of "Pieces of a Man" is quite somber. The lackluster success of "Doe or Die" definitely affected the artist, not dulling his abilities as a rapper but sobering him to the fleeting chances at fame. Like a true gangster, AZ refuses to let his enemies see his weaknesses, to open the wound to the world. Thus, he remains strong throughout (think of a neo-Nas type disposition) yet seems to be bleeding underneath. His frustration and pain is potently extracted through the music, such as in "Half-A-Mil / Love Is Love", "SOSA", and the title track "Pieces Of A (Black) Man." "Half-A-Mil / Love Is Love" shows AZ's emotional façade rather literally. It starts out with a Cris-popping, gangster motif, but a minute into the song the vocals fade and a beautiful Blues sample of a man singing rises out of the silence and a piano creeps in. With the dramatic mood shift, AZ begins to shed his hard-shell slightly:
"Chop the pie up, four ways, get lyed up
Infiltrate, never violate get tied up
It's all a chess game, choose sides, the best remains
True lies, vibes die when bums infest the game
Bogus shit shots, you woke but let your man get locked
I love this hip-hop, stock the bank let the Cris pop
Peep the next shit, push a big Benz, fuck a Lexus
The streets was hectic, so I stacked and made my exit
More doe to get, focus my thoughts for me to go legit
Ferosious shit, cop a huge castle, on the ocean cliff
Imagine that, a few years back, I was baggin' cracks
Magnum gats, playin' street corners, commitin' savage acts
Twistin' up, nuttin' but love, for niggas sittin' up
Hold your own, try comin' home wit out gettin' touched
Two for one, laws made foul how they do the young
Whose new to come, tried to tell shorty he shoulda threw the gun"
"Pieces of a Man" continues to exhibit a bi-polar personality, see-sawing between mid-nineties club ringers and dark, vicious soliloquies. The mood jumps from the livid rancor of "The Payback" to the carefree fun of "Just Because." From sordid, coke dealer fantasies on "SOSA" to a beat so pseudo-tough and sexually confused on "It's A Boy Thing," that fellow Firm member Foxy Brown should have been flowing over it. However, despite all my previous remarks, the album sounds extremely cohesive. "Pieces of a Man" melts together in old school harmony, due to AZ's lyrical consistency and old fashioned production by Trackmasters, L.E.S., RZA, amongst others. The album evokes nostalgia for the golden era of the early nineties —Death Row, "Ready To Die", "Illmatic" shit— rap. When lyrics and beats seemed to swirl together like cinnamon in your oatmeal, creating real music instead of a awkward, post-production pairing of sounds.
Lyrically, AZ is pretty sick. His rhyme style combines the smoothness of Mase with the complex delivery of say Inspectah Deck. Frequently the vocal gumbo can become monotonous, wherein a verse tarries too long and the passiveness of AZ's voice just can't keep your ears attuned. But overall, "Pieces of a Man" reestablishes AZ as not only underrated, but one of the top lyricist in his class. There are so many great verses on this album I could quote at random. For instance on "Whatever Happened", AZ gets nasty when paired with the legendary RZA:
"You know the routine, fast cars, rings get a crew seen
We true fiends, old school style that's how we do things
Born & destined, hands on many investments
Strong, reflect this 'til I'm drawn back to the essence
Street wise, 36 waist, small feet size
The C.I.'s quick to slide off, once the heat rise
Detour, poverty zone, police war
Going through each dawn, searchin' new ways for me to eat more
Fast learner, quiet storm, play the back burner
Bureaucrats, I react like Nat Turner
Hold weight, used to rock kicks wit no lace
Fuck a soul mate, low heart pace, pulse at a slow rate
Runnin' rapid, while others play as if they captive
Brain's inactive, bein' subjected to this crab shit To each his own, fuck the foulness, need a week alone
We can zone, all day long, on the speaker phone
600, nine five North, stay blunted, stress I came from it
Sex got drained from it
The new breed star gazin', raisin' two seeds
To be free, the franchise is all a whole crew need... indeed"
As you could guess, "Pieces of a Man" didn't gain AZ the belated popularity he deserved—correction, deserves. On his follow-up album to "Pieces of a Man", he even puns his rising number of professional disappointments with its title, "9 Lives". Yet he never staggers. Through all of AZ's professional miscarriages, he remains impervious to disaster and has hit the public with near classic albums every time. He is the type of man other rappers claim to be. The rapper other rappers should aspire to be. Five shots made 50 cent, you can't mimic that. But the imperturbable confidence and resilience that AZ emits, similarly discouraged artist can surely attempt to imitate. So many rappers flap, fold and waver like a flag in the wind of changing trends. Their interchangeable ideals switching from day to day, going up the flagpole to bask in the sun for a few fleeting moments, then taken down again when their day is done. AZ is the pole they fly so high from, the backbone to this genre of music. He will always be there—strong, solid, never wavering—continuing to push forward to a new day, a new life.
Music Vibes: 8 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 8 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 8 of 10
Originally posted: February 22, 2005