There, I’ve got it out of the way immediately. No matter what review you read on an AZ record, Nas is mentioned in the first few sentences. If “Illmatic” weighed on Nas’ shoulders for years if not decades after it was released, that “Life’s a Bitch” verse has to be a similarly poisoned chalice for AZ. An immaculate guest verse on a perfect hip-hop album. It was always going to be a difficult task meeting expectations and inevitably, 1995’s “Doe or Die”, while an excellent record in its own right, is often lost in the shuffle when citing classic albums from that year. Could it have been better? Probably. Was there a shit-ton of excellent albums in 1995? Definitely.
Being overlooked or underrated is something AZ has often experienced throughout his 27-year career. Similar to Nas, many consider AZ’s debut his best work. The records that followed were decidedly hit-and-miss although I personally consider the mid-2000s AZ run to be some of his finest material. He had shaken the shadow of Nas and identified his own sound: polished and soulful. It matched his effortless flow and penchant for lavish storytelling. Material on 2005’s “AWOL“, 2006’s “The Format“, and particularly 2008’s “Undeniable” increasingly leaned into the clean, expensive-sounding territory – a far cry from the grimy collaborations with Nas that helped define his early work. It suited AZ and it helped separate him from other Nas associates (ie. Cormega, Nature). After “Undeniable” though, we were treated to a number of compilations, mixtapes, and re-releases before AZ stepped back from albums entirely. Aside from a 15th-anniversary release of “Doe or Die”, the 2010s were relatively quiet as far new music went.
Before we get into the brunt of the album, can we just take a minute to appreciate how well the 49-year old AZ looks? With numerous rappers passing away at the age of 50 in recent times, it’s great to see an artist that hasn’t been as active looking so youthful. He looks no different from twenty years ago! Similarly, AZ literally sounds like he hasn’t missed a beat. The impeccable flow remains and it always warms the heart to see heavyweight producers like Pete Rock, Buckwild, Alchemist, Heatmakerz, and Bink! providing the soundscapes. It may be called “Doe or Die II” but this sounds nothing like the mid-90s, but more like the early 2000s output (“9 Lives” or “Aziatic”).
After an introduction from Idris Elba, AZ reels off familiar boasts even stating that he’s “still a Don, for you haters I’m just reconfirming”. The Jahiem track “The Wheel” is classic AZ, or atleast the AZ we have come to expect. There’s even a line acknowledging how fighting fit he is thanks to picking and choosing his work: “when your features are as fresh as your kicks, you age well.” It’s a great bit of wordplay and we can’t forget the guy has continued to deliver excellent verses on other artists’ records, namely Ghostface’s “36 Seasons” album.
The bulk of the album is AZ reiterating why he’s so highly regarded. It’s not exactly going to set the world alight with fresh ideas, but other than maybe Rick Ross or Roc Marciano, this is what AZ does best. Speaking of which, the Rick Ross collaboration is not surprising at all considering their similarities. It is proper blockbuster music and the classy horns, beautiful hook from Mara Kaye and Ross’ booming presence all make this a highlight. I’d love to hear a Rick Ross & AZ full-length as they complement each other well.
Lil’ Wayne deserves credit for his standout appearance on “Ritual”, not just for his trademark wordplay but the playful energy he brings to a grim Alchemist beat. The way he comes in with some hardcore pornographic imagery after Conway served up some street swagger did make me smile, and it’s a necessary moment on what can be a fairly one-note album.
There’s plenty to enjoy on “Doe or Die II” but after Nas just put out a great sequel album himself in “King’s Disease II“, it does lack on the production front. The singles sound like album cuts so it doesn’t quite match up to previous albums – certainly not the first “Doe or Die”. The bonus track with T-Pain is solid but that hook is painful. I could never get into Dave East’s music either and his presence on “Blow That Shit” highlights how jarring his vocal tone is when alongside the easy-on-the-ear AZ. The Buckwild beat, however, is just lovely. Pete Rock comes through with “Check Me Out” which does have that original “Doe or Die” energy, but for the most part, this album shares little with its predecessor.
“Doe or Die II” is a solid if unspectacular AZ album that has a bit of everything from his arsenal. A couple of tracks retain the “Doe or Die” style, a few have that smoother “Aziatic” feel and some songs capture that later ultra-slick aesthetic. Instead of being a literal sequel, it feels like a refresher course. “Oh you like this? Well check out THIS album”. It’s a great starting point for any new AZ listeners and a welcome reminder of what AZ can offer – and how he remains a master of the craft.