At the start of his rap career, Anthony Cruz seemed to be plucked out of obscurity and given the title “destined to be huge” before his first record even came out. How did this happen? Nas put him on the track “Life’s a Bitch” on HIS very first record “Illmatic.” Already known as a poet extrordinaire, many in the hip-hop community were going to somewhat ridiculous lengths to call Nas the “next Rakim” and other such lofty titles. In the decade plus since that release, Nas proved he’s not the next anybody – he’s just great period. That doesn’t mean he’s mistake free though. The buzz Nas had spilled over onto his man AZ, and those who heard “Life’s a Bitch” were just as quick to declare him the next big thing. And so, after much anticipation, AZ finally dropped “Doe or Die” in 1995… and mad people slept on it. It was a great record to be sure, but the expectations were so high it was almost guaranteed to dissapoint some. Still Nas had another plan for AZ to blow, so he became part of the supergroup The Firm. Their album was just as highly anticipated, but unlike AZ’s solo debut it wasn’t that good at all. Truth be told it was awful. The promising career of the talented Anthony Cruz seemed to have been derailed before it could even get started, and debuting on Nas’ first record was seeming more like a curse than a gift.

Quiet as kept though, AZ has been fighting his way back up through the ranks to achieve that once-forgotten level of critical acclaim. Coming from the ground up instead of starting off at the top seems to suit AZ much better, but it still doesn’t stop people from sleeping. You may have missed great records such as “9 Lives” and “Aziatic,” and admittedly it wouldn’t be hard to do so since AZ has bounced from label to label. Now in 2005 Anthony Cruz stands ready to make his biggest statement since his debut on “A.W.O.L.,” an aptly named record for a rapper who at times has seemed to gone from the scene for no reason. Now that AZ is back he’s ready to prove to both critics and fans that he’s “So Sincere” about this rap shit:

“Last of a genre, it’s nothin to mash y’all minors
Y’all trash, I’ll leave half of y’all niggaz in trauma
Ha ha, so I laugh, cause I’d rather clam in vagina
Splash a few grands on some high sand in a sauna
Usually ponder when I puff my little ganjas
Somber, feelin like Don Cheedle in _Hotel Rwanda_
You know karma increase when you cease your drama it’s deep
But you sleep when you feel there’s peace upon you
Keep that armor, I formally greet as a charmer
But beneath is more than mystique, I’m a monster”

AZ weaves in and out of beats with superb slickness. Like Nas he has always been a great creator of wordplay with deft breath control, but unlike the man he is so often compared to his voice is higher pitched and seems almost to have a lisp to it. If Nas was the second coming of Rakim, then AZ would be the second coming of Kool G. Rap. Both paint very cinematic pictures with their wordplay, as in the case of his Wu-Tang duet with Ghostface and Raekwon titled “New York”:

“This is that, Riker’s Island not slippin rap flow
For them box bitten bing monsters sniffin that blow
Block huggers know the style, triple that dough
Forty cal. for them cocksuckers, sitt ’em back slow
What y’all know about coke pies, get ’em that low
I mouth them before the bowtie resemble cash flow
Rep N.Y., no lie, my side is tabasco
So hot, crooked cops are searchin ya asshole
It’s the drop, that freeze niggaz right where they stand
For the gwap niggaz’ll play ‘Pac and pop at they man
It don’t stop we up top, but we locked and landing
He roadblock, he flow shots, get Ghost and scram
Gingerbread niggaz on the run from feds
Shit is sick, pretty chicks’ll put a gun to ya head
Never a vic’, either think quick or end up dead
Caise when we flip, what’s left to be said?”

Great narratives without great beats are just stories, not rap songs. Fortunately “A.W.O.L.” provides great beats in spades. Heatmakerz come correct on the soulful and powerful “Never Change.” M.O.P.’s Lil’ Fame goes old school throwback with new school crunk on “AZ’s Chillin.” Disco D comes with straight up club/radio smoothness on the grooving “City of Gods.” The list goes on – the menacing violin strings of “Street Life,” the touching synth funk of “Bedtime Story,” even DJ Premier gets into the act on “The Come Up.” If you don’t get chills down your back listening to this track, it’s hard to believe you’re a hip-hop head at all:

“You know the saga, who liver, who hotter
Who shot at who at the Ramada
I knew about beef since Bambaataa
Before _Beat Street_ streets was heavily deep with the riders
Guns and money, some was hungry
Dysfunctional families that come from junkies
Jailbirds with wanted warrants up in countries
Just jungle survivin like a bunch of monkies
Marked dollars, D.A. NARC’s with collars
Niggaz snitchin, but still got the heart to holla
Hot chicks in short skirts and damn near topless
Play fly and they gossip, stay high and just ride dick
Can’t call it, too fresh to spoil it
Two tecs to war with, grew up next to all this
So understand I know from firsthand
The lies of a church man, high off his first gram”

Some rappers just have that extra charismatic style to the way they speak that makes you not only hear what they’re saying but visualize it like you’re seeing it through their eyes. AZ is one of that rare breed, and when he dubbed himself “Rather Unique” a decade ago he was dead on point. There aren’t many guest appearances getting in the way of this far too short 54 minute album, but you won’t be mad at hearing Bounty Killer on “Envious” or CL Smooth on the bonus track “Magic Hour.” Challenged to prove he’s still relevant after a decade in the game, AZ comes through with a masterful performance. Let’s just hope he doesn’t go “A.W.O.L.” from the rap scene again, unless it’s to make “A.W.O.L. 2.”

AZ :: A.W.O.L.
9Overall Score