When AZ made his mainstream debut on “Life’s a Bitch” off of Nas’ Illmatic in 1994, nobody really knew who he was but the up-and-coming Brooklyn emcee left all listeners intrigued. Not only did AZ help propel the track into a universally renowned single, he stood as the only featured artist on Illmatic, which traveled through the ears of the world as hip hop’s inadvertent bible. Strapped with a unique voice, intelligence and a flow heavily influenced by Nas and Kool G Rap, AZ built a strong following quicker than most.
Visualizing the realism of life in actuality
Fuck who’s the baddest, a person’s status depends on salary
And my mentality is money-orientated
I’m destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it
Cause yeah, we were beginners in the hood as five percenters
But somethin’ musta got in us cause all of us turned to sinners
Now some restin’ in peace and some are sittin’ in San Quentin
Others such as myself are trying to carry on tradition
Keeping this Schweppervescent street ghetto essence inside us
Cause it provides us with the proper insight to guide us
Even though, we know somehow we all gotta go
But as long as we leaving thievin’
We’ll be leavin’ with some kind of dough, so
Until that day we expire and turn to vapors
Me and my capers, will be somewhere stackin’ plenty papers
Keeping it real, packing steel, getting high
Cause life’s a bitch and then you die
AZ’s “Life’s a Bitch” verse put him on the map and lead to a vibrant solo career that would exhibit one of the most underrated catalogs in hip hop history. In terms of flow, delivery, annunciation and lyricism, you could even call him “Nas-lite,” but with his own flavor and an enrapturing voice that hasn’t been mimicked. A lot of rappers front their vocabulary and try to make themselves sound good with a lot of words they don’t even know the definition of, but AZ separates himself from that category with a flurry of cohesive bars that fit a great deal of information into a small box.
The Visualiza has not only earned the respect of his peers on the mic, he has been put on blast by some of the best production you could ever ask for. AZ has worked with a legendary cast of producers, such as Dr. Dre, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, RZA, Large Professor, Buckwild, No I.D., L.E.S., Trackmasters, Nottz, Statik Selektah, Nyshiem Myrick and many other big names to complement his captivating microphone presence.
Roughly a year and a half after Illmatic‘s release, AZ dropped his solo debut album Doe or Die in 1995. The album peaked at #15 on the Billboard charts and will go down as one of the most impressive debut albums of the 90s era, commonly referred to as the golden age of hip hop. Hit single “Sugar Hill” (ft. Miss Jones), produced by L.E.S., went gold and stands as his most successful individual record.
Doe or Die kicks off with “Uncut Raw,” a menacing rapid-fire introduction to his lyrical skills without a hook. Underground heads can’t help but knock their dome to AZ’s lyrical prowess and the song’s gritty undertone, set by Loose.
Nas joins his descendant superstar on the hook of “Gimme Yours,” their second of 17 collaborations. Produced by Pete Rock, the song is carried by a soulful piano that penetrates your ears with an uplifting vibe, as AZ puts together a duo of elusive eight-bar verses.
So in God I trust, I lust for a 850-deluxe
And until I touch a million-plus, ain’t much to discuss
Diamonds and double-digits, Gianni Versace down with lizards
It’s realism so I visualize it to live it
Movin’ cleverly, with intentions of longevity
Strong pedigree got me touchin’ papers, others will never see, G
So do the crest in my claw, flourescents
Symbolises the essence, you’re sailin’ in a schweppervescence
Drug investments, a street thug’s plug, the insurance, but informers
They had you wanted for warrants ‘fore you get enourmous
Life’s a performance so players play with endurance
Cause for more cents, any villain’s willing to get more intense
Pete Rock comes back to create “Rather Unique,” indisputably one of AZ’s best songs. AZ illustrates his unique persona throughout 24 bars of lyrical excellence, highlighted by the second of three verses:
My verbals rip shit, brains give birth to thoughts in triplets
Fuck it I’m on some flip shit, ready to let my clip spit
Dramatical, vocals release shells like automatics do
Music’s magical causing any battles to be tragical
Child, got a style sick as hell, sicker than sickle cell anemia
Slaughter your circulatory like leukemia
Filled with larceny, who want parts of me? I’m vicious
Mad malicious, cause it’s real on this road to riches
I got this mastered, other rappers’ll craft it
Weak and wicked camouflaged as killers how they speak and kick it
Peep this uniqueness, non-believers I’m leaving speechless
Left to choke as if skunk smoke was coming through the speakers
Surgically nice with any verbal device, trife
Breathing life into mics, my insight’s beyond the twilight
So die or fight, no surrender, no retreat
Techniques speak, I’m rather unique
Doe or Die is one of the best hip hop albums of its time period and is full of elite artistry from start to finish. Other notable tracks include “Your World Don’t Stop,” “Ho Happy Jackie,” “I Feel for You” (ft. Erica Scott), “We Can’t Win” (ft. Amar Pep) and the self-titled “Doe or Die.”
In between Doe or Die and AZ’s second studio album Pieces of a Man, AZ joined The Firm with Nas, Dr. Dre, Foxy Brown, Nature and Steve Stoute. The hip hop supergroup would drop The Firm: The Album in 1997, where AZ appeared on six of the record’s 18 tracks, highlighted by “Deperados” (ft. Canibus), “Executive Decision,” “Phone Tap” and single “Firm Biz.”
Approximately six months after The Firm: The Album‘s release, AZ went on to follow up with his sophomore album Pieces of a Man in 1998, which received positive critical acclaim and peaked at #22 on the charts. The record maintained some of the street flavor that Doe or Die boasted, but generally moved in more of a radio-friendly direction.
Similar to “Uncut Raw,” AZ opens up the album with gritty verses and no hook on “I’m Known.” The track drops some jewels and focuses on his vision to keep moving forward without any set-backs.
Out of 30 men, know 20 that’s worthy men
10 is friends, the other 10 would probably turn me in
Phone tapped, born in Brooklyn, hold my own gat
Unknown traps keep jail niggas goin’ back
Time tickin’, young shorty mind flippin’
Blind addiction turn killer from a fine Christian
Streets ruined from sneaky shit niggas keep doin’
Snakes, that’s why I hand shake & keep movin’
“I’m Known” transitions into another big time collaboration with Nas, as the two legendary microphone fiends team up with L.E.S. on “How Ya Livin’.” The banger pays homage to their grimy upbringing while simultaneously promoting the positive direction their lives have headed in. After going platinum and establishing themselves as two of New York’s finest emcees, it’s safe to say they were, and are, living just fine.
“SOSA,” a Trackmasters production, draws you in with its seductive strings as AZ says “screw a hook” and spits 18 bars without a water break. Trackmasters also came through with a reflective tone for self-titled “Pieces of a (Black) Man,” where AZ drops some knowledge and profiles the struggles and realities of growing up in the inner city.
Since the genesis, paraphernalia circle my premises
Poor images, project life drained my innocence
I saw the worst, genocide, I guess the world is cursed
My old earth identified, though her soul is for the church
She prayed for peace, hopin’ I’m saved before she lay deceased
To say the least, the warden’s too wise to play the streets
I know the ropes, certain niggas too slow to cope
And though I sold some coke, it was only to stay afloat
Amongst the frozen hearted, some now bentin’, some departed
Inhalin’ chocolate, tracin’ back to where it started
The Crack wave 2 for 5, deuce & tres
The MAC sprays, puffin’ lye, truth & days
And though it sound ill, through all the foul shit, I’m down still
All around real, rough is the grounds in Brownsville
I know the ledge, meditatin’, holdin’ my head
Eyes red, it’s Doe or Die til I’m dead
“Whatever Happened (The Birth)” brings the raw as RZA comes correct as usual with a gritty cut, as well as laying down the track’s second and final verse.
“What’s the Deal,” Pieces of a Man‘s only single, features Kenny Greene and appeals to the radio, acts as an open invitation for the ladies and flaunts the glamor life.
AZ profiles his promotion from the streets to luxury living on “Trading Places,” another Trackmasters banger that is sure to leave all listeners vibing.
So what’s the remedy, from bein’ invaded by your enemy
Envy me, had a cold heart since infancy
Below freezin’, used to flip for no reason
Now beyond that, learned to relax, master slow breathin’
Blowin’ hundreds, spendin’ paper’s so redundant
I’m from it, most large niggas over and done wit
No one to run wit, just a few from the old school
Ocean cruise, lain’ back soakin’ the blues
Scopin’ the views, never once open the news
It’s all stress, placed on the broke and confused
So know the game, some’ll make the Hall of Fame
While others’ll die in vain tryin’ to front for a name
Other notable tracks off of Pieces of a Man are “It’s a Boy Thing” (ft. Nature), “Just Because,” “Last Dayz” (ft. Monifah), “The Pay Back,” “Trial of the Century” (ft. Foxy Brown & Panama P.I.) and “Betcha Don’t Know” (ft. Keanna Henson).
Three years later, AZ dropped his third album 9 Lives, which wasn’t as critically acclaimed as his first two projects but still delivered the goods. The record is highlighted by a slew of raw jams to blast in the whip along with radio-friendly singles “Problems” and “Everything’s Everything” (ft. Joe).
But it seems, y’all would rather see me hit than see me rich
Get bagged over some bullshit and see me snitch
Hopin’ some AIDS ho bitch’ll leave me sick
Like I’m a sucker for love wit some easy dick
I did dirt through my days but hid my work
Even then I still made sure no kids got hurt
Sweep the next, been knowin’ since my feet got wet
From the best turned vet learned to speak direct
My game’s jumpin’, we all had our days of barkin’
You could tell niggas styles by they ways of parkin’
Why dispute it? Dough got us so polluted
Paranoid, to the point it’s like we over-do it
On “I Don’t Give a Fuck,” AZ spits game over Chop D.I.E.S.E.L.’s head banger that features a vocal sample from Nas to create the hook. S.O.S.A. and Chop D.I.E.S.E.L. get together for street hits with a similar raw tone on “At Night” and “What Ya’ll Niggas Want” (ft. Foxy Brown). D.I.E.S.E.L. was also the man behind the “Problems” instrumental.
“Quiet Money TBS” stands as one of the illest tracks on the album. Featuring Fresh, Ty Fyffe and Tydro team up on the production to put together a sound that is both soulful and raw at the same time.
Aziatic served as somewhat of a rejuvenation record for AZ, as his fourth project’s quality reached a level much closer to his initial two albums than 9 Lives was able to achieve. The standout track from Aziatic is undoubtedly hit single “I’m Back,” which delivers one of the best and most uplifting instrumentals AZ has ever spit a verse over. The Brooklyn mic ripper speaks some truth as the record massages your soul with confidence and positivity.
Spirit of Marcus Garvey, Farad Muhammad
Medgar Evars and Bob Marley, I’m God-body
The scripture says Allah’s inside me, show love
I was hugged by the arms of Gandhi, gave me my strength
You could tell somebody raised me with sense
We all need somethin to help us through our daily events
Bear with me, the toughest niggas tear quickly
No lie, pops still cry and he near fifty, freedom or death
I give niggas a reason to sweat, there’s no test
Verbally it’s like I’m seen as the best; who wanna try me?
Aziatic features another Nas collaboration with “The Essence,” which went on to be nominated for a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. It’s not very often you see one rapper literally finish bars started by another. Usually, you see a verse-for-verse collab or even a few lines before switching to the next man. On “The Essence,” they work with each other on nearly every bar from start to finish. This is a masterpiece.
[AZ] You couldn’t catch us in a car without the bangers
[AZ] Believe, I touched a couple of movie stars and entertainers
[Nas] Indeed, one in particular, almost started to name her
[Nas] I was there when you first pushed up and started to game her
[AZ] Been a long journey, certain shit just don’t concern me
[Nas] They ain’t hurtin’ shit; we flip, they hire attorneys
[AZ] Yo I’mma stay custom, ’til I’m old grey and rustin’
[AZ] Reminiscin’ the number of chickens that claim we fucked ‘em
[Nas] Bet some badda hoes than them other funky rappers chose
[Nas] I’m tryin’ to wife a chick, light a spliff
[Nas] This might be like another part to “Life’s a Bitch”
[AZ] Bite your lips, who’s nice as this? We righteousness
[AZ] No mic assists, it’s murderous – granted the right to flip
“Fan Mail” is another outstanding piece of art, on the strength of its melody that warms up your heart and paints a smile across your face as AZ illustrates more reflective verses and pays homage to his supporters.
Notable Tracks: “The Come Up” (produced by DJ Premier), “A.W.O.L.,” “New York” (ft. Raekwon & Ghostface Killah), “Live Wire,” “Magic Hour” (ft. C.L. Smooth), “Never Change,” “Street Life” (ft. Half-A-Mil & Begetz), “The Truth,” “Can’t Stop”
Notable Tracks: “Good for Nothin’,” “Get Money,” “Before It’s All Said & Done,” “Poli With the Villains,” “Livin’ the Life,” “Refuse 2 Die,” “Dreams Come True,” “Money Makes the World Go Round“
AZ has been going strong for 20 years as one of the best lyricists of all-time and firmly holds his place as one of the elite rappers to come out of New York. The Visualiza has put out eight studio albums in addition to his work with The Firm, and while his earlier records were more successful than his latest, each and every project is filled with excellence and AZ’s signature style that keeps your head knocking. He is quietly one of the best rappers to come out of the 90s era, and his first four albums highlight the prime of his immaculate body of work. There should be a picture of his face in the dictionary next to “underrated,” and if you haven’t taken the time to listen to his catalog, you have been severely missing out for a long, long time. AZ is the truth like Paul Pierce. If you’re behind, educate yo’self, fool, or forever deprive your ears from some rather unique greatness.
Be on the lookout for AZ’s upcoming record Doe or Die 2, which he claims will be his last album and is set to drop by the end of the year.