WWJCVD Do? Hall of Fame inductee: AZ

Sixteen years ago, Anthony Cruz burst onto the scene with 16 bars that would be both a blessing and a curse – a Hall of Fame verse that proved to be an introduction unlike any other and yet one that he continues to struggle with to this day.

Visualizin the realism of life and actuality/
Fuck who’s the baddest a person’s status depends on salary/
And my mentality is, money orientated

With those words on fellow rhyme slinger Nas’ “Life’s A Bitch,” the rapper known as AZ had the great fortune to appear on one of the seminal rap records of the medium’s most fertile period. It seemed that great things were in AZ’s future.

Nine albums, multiple mixtapes and seemingly dozens of labels later, he may not be a star, but for those who appreciate consistency, lyrics and the never-say-die attitude of a hustler still trying to hit it big, AZ represents all that is right (and wrong) with rap. And for that, AZ is the newest member of the WWJCVD Do? Hall of Fame.

After his breakthrough on “Life’s A Bitch,” rap heads were fiending for AZ to drop his debut, and shortly thereafter, 1995’s “Doe or Die” hit shelves. While it wasn’t as earthshaking as “Illmatic,” it remains to this day a solid album, and unfortunately, AZ’s greatest commercial success, fueled by the catchy “Sugar Hill.”

Even though “Doe or Die” didn’t catch on, people in the know could see AZ’s talent, part of the reason why he was invited to be a part of Dr. Dre’s Firm project, which on paper seemed to be a smash – Nas, AZ, Foxy Brown and Nature with Dr. Dre production.

And if there’s a way that an album that debuts at No. 1 can be a failure, this was it. No one was happy with the final result and The Firm was never heard from again.

From this point on, AZ became the poster boy for shitty label drama, as he jumped from one weak company (EMI, Noo Trybe) to another (Motown, Koch). Yet, if you paid attention, you could always keep up.

1998 saw AZ drop the criminally underrated “Pieces of A Man,” which I contend is his second-best album. I worked at a record store during the time this album came out, and I did my best to put everyone on it, but no one seemed to care.

Typical of the kind of shady stuff that seems to happen to him, AZ’s first single off the album, “Hey AZ,” was mysteriously dropped from the final tracklisting despite having a video – why you would do this is beyond me, but it happened.

After the aborted “S.O.S.A” project (which was never released due to heavy bootlegging), AZ returned in 2001 with “9 Lives,” which frankly, is one of his worst records. Look, I don’t blame AZ for trying to catch on with what’s popular to try to move some units, but there were too many naked attempts to try and find a “club song,” a trend that continues to plague his records to this day.

Still, even though “9 Lives” gets the least amount of spin from me, it still has two great songs, “Love Me,” and “Problems,” which flipped a DeBarge sample to great effect.

The next year, AZ came back with what I consider his magnum opus, “Aziatic,” an album that I still keep in heavy rotation to this day. I know people say that AZ tends to bite whatever style is popular, and in 2002, that was the sped-up, chipmunk soul style used by Jay-Z.

From front to back, “Aziatic” bumps with the perfect mix of lyrics and production – this is the kind of effort that people were expecting from AZ since his debut. I must admit some bias for this album – I got married in ’02, and my brother and I played this record nonstop during that summer.

And the longtime Nas-AZ reunion, “The Essence,” earned the duo a Grammy nomination – I still remember being shocked at seeing that announcement.

That would prove to be the apex of AZ’s rocky career. Since then, it’s been a parade of disappointments and releases that only the diehards like myself check for. “Final Call” was scrapped due to leaks, and “A.W.O.L.,” “The Format,” “Undeniable” and “Legendary” all seem to blur together – records that show flashes of AZ’s brilliance muted by shoddy production and half-hearted stabs at getting back on the charts.

It looks as if AZ is working on “Doe or Die 2” for 2010, and I hope that somehow, lightning strikes and AZ gets the commercial success he deserves. Still, I hope he takes solace in the fact that rap aficionados across the world consider him one of the greatest.

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~ by Elliott on April 20, 2010.

One Response to “WWJCVD Do? Hall of Fame inductee: AZ”

  1. Ell, I was listening to the HIP-HOP station on Sirius and was shocked to hear that AZ is trying to have a full-fledged Firm reunion album! I highly doubt that he can pull it off, but I admire him for trying!

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