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15 October, 2008@7:17 am

Any time you talk about AZ, you have to start by bringing up his unforgettable verse on Nas’ Illimatic some 14 years ago.  While that indelible verse is a classic hip hop moment, the mere fact that you have to reference it every time says something about what AZ has been up to since then.

Along with DJ Absolute, AZ’s smooth flow is back again on the mixtape N4L in another attempt to make a splash that separates him from “Life’s a Bitch.”

Some of the themes behind N4L seem to be socially/spiritually based, with interludes about slavery and songs like “Knowledge Freedom,” and “12 Jewels.”  What, exactly, AZ is talking about, though, is unclear.

On “12 Jewels” he talks about being a “young mogul,” meeting with “execs,” considering wedding invitations (“who’s marrying next?”), and telling us you can’t master the game unless your vernacular is “Islamic-like.”  This is all just from one verse followed by a hook about “the 12 views of Islam,” “hieroglyphs” and “what time it is when the 12th comet hit.” He goes on, in the same song to talk about being a “favorite of the fortune five.”

Um, come again?

At some point, this becomes gibberish. Why is he attempting to mesh this image of a corporate player (which is not believable, by the way) with pseudo-religious mumbo jumbo?

There’s also some filler on here with your typical thug posturing on songs like “The Teks on Deck” and “Never Gonna Stop.” On “Conspiracy,” AZ strings together a series of paranoid scenarios, but ends the track with obligatory shout-outs to Brooklyn, Chi-town, etc.

Things get interesting on the next track when AZ inhabits the character of a “Runaway Slave.”

“I know I’m a n*gga, but now I’m a n*gga that made it to the river…I’m just a runaway slave/I stay runnin’ till they run me in my grave/either that or they lock me in a cage/throw away the key/will I ever be free?”

“N*gga Games” and “I’m That N*gga” continue the theme with some provocative commentary on race.  Unfortunately, just when AZ draws you in, he has you skipping the next track, “The Originals,” a dreaded southern bounce-style knockoff. The album closes out clumsily with the money-making, bong-smoking “I Just Wanna” and the somewhat more reflective “Self-Savior.”

Listening to N4L, it’s hard to tell what AZ is all about.  It’s hard to tell if he’s still reaching for some type of commercial success, or if he really has something to say?  Granted, this is only a mixtape and he’s got the right to throw some things at the wall, but its not clear what he’s getting at. - Stefan Schumacher

  Mixtape D.L.
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