One verse is all it took, and we were hooked. AZ’s explosive introduction on Nas’ “Life’s A Bitch” catapulted the young Crooklyn emcee from unknown to most-anticipated almost overnight. His wildly inconsistent debut, Doe Or Die, offered more promising glimpses with “Sugar Hill”, and the Pete Rock assisted “Rather Unique”. Yet, every effort that followed, the ill-fated Firm flop, (which was supposed to make him a star), and his disastrous sophomore set, Pieces Of A Man, saw that potential dwindling away quicker then you can say Isaaih Rider. Unfortunately, two LP’s, and two labels later, the Visualiza is still known primarily for that one verse.
Thanks to the street-buzz generated by his somewhat sanctioned bootlegged S.O.S.A EP, that that may change as AZ has been given a reprieve. With the standout tracks from that recent EP in tow, a more focused AZ returns with 9 Lives. From the first bars of the LP’s intro, its evident that AZ’s turbulent career path has humbled him, and brought him back to basics—”First bars I ever spitted out scarred the game, since then all the jewels and the cars done changed, had to circumcise the snakes disregard they names, so when I spit now I involve the pain, convinced every religion that the God done came, to me its like 88 and I’m as large as Kane”. While AZ flips the usual street-grind mathematics. His Latin tinged voice, vivid lyricism, and otherworldly flow distinguishes him from the next Cristal popping, over-hyped animal thug. And when A is on his game, he is one of the most-compelling borough poets around; evidenced by the brutish “That’s Real” featuring the menacing Beanie Sigel, and the flossy “Let’s Toast”.
Though a few new cuts “At Night”, and “What Ya’ll Niggas Want” f/ Foxy Brown show some headway. It is really the stellar material from the S.O.S.A. EP that carries this LP. “I Don’t Give A Fuck” is a DJ Premier banger that practically jumps out of the speakers, then AZ delves into the El Debarge catalog (who knew?) for the underground favorite “Love Me”, and the therapeutic “Problems”.
When AZ stretches his limitations, much like previous efforts, the waters get choppy. AZ’s insatiable craving to get urban radio love is to his own detriment, and slowly undermines an otherwise convincing comeback. The Timbaland produced “AZ’s Back” neither shakes nor shimmy’s with the same bugged-out craziness we have come to except from Tim (can you say throwaway track), as AZ’s rapid cadence becomes lost amidst the computerized shuffling. Likewise, Eddie F’s oriental-flavored “Everything’s Everything” f/Joe is standard club fare without the necessary bounce, and “How Many Wanna” f/Roc-A-Fella castaway Amil offers more excess.
While AZ enlists a predominantly virgin production ensemble, they’re consistent, though underwhelming boardwork is bearable. However, one has to wonder how far AZ could possibly go with a more thorough assemblance of beatmakers. 9 Lives is AZ’s strongest effort to date, and he finally seems ready to grasp the longevity that he once took for granted. On “I Don’t Give A Fuck” AZ waxes “you know my style M.I.A., but I miss y’all too”. Minus the crossover duds, the feeling is mutual.
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