Happy 15th Anniversary to AZ’s Aziatic, originally released June 11, 2002.
In 2001 Anthony Cruz a.k.a. AZ introduced his third album entitled 9 Lives by stating “the first bars I ever spit, I scarred the game, since then all the jewels and the cars done changed” referencing his classic contribution to “Life’s a Bitch” from Nas’ 1994 masterpiece Illmatic.
There are certain moments that have burned their way into the consciousness of steadfast listeners of hip-hop music and participants of its broader culture. Those moments become milestones, where you remember where you were during the experience and mark time to recall how the climate shifted after they occurred. An easy example is Rakim’s verse on “Eric B. is President.” Another is N.W.A.’s song “Straight Outta Compton,” and a few years later Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck.”
The anticipation and satisfaction of Nas’ debut LP is undoubtedly one of those moments, but a highlight of the entire experience was what sounded like a teenage voice that broke through on the third song “Life’s a Bitch.” “My mentality is money-orientated / I'm destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it.” The quick, head-spinning burst of philosophical, intellectual, streetwise lyrics that rolled off the tongue so effortlessly set in motion a chain reaction for most listeners. First, you stopped your cassette as your fellow listeners exclaimed “son, rewind that,” and then you reached for the album case in response to someone asking, “yo, who is that?” Considering Illmatic’s legacy as arguably the greatest album of all time and its indisputable role in revitalizing the art of skillful lyricism, the album’s sole guest emcee and author of one of its most memorable moments is sadly too often left out of the conversation.
In the handful of years after he blessed “Life’s a Bitch,” AZ had quietly amassed a respectable repertoire of solid albums and was revered for his concrete lyricism. Known to the casual hip-hop follower as merely a frequent collaborator with Nas, AZ also appeared to keep a hot 16 at his disposal whenever requested to capture the trademark ‘90s feel of Mafioso style lyrics. Slipping in and out of mainstream notoriety, AZ was talented enough to always fight his way back into the conversation of the most relevant emcee at the time, prompting some to consider him among the all-time greats.
When he returned with his fourth album Aziatic in 2002 as the smoke cleared from the battle between his longtime rhyme partner Nas and Brooklyn borough-mate Jay-Z, AZ not surprisingly opted to remain neutral and remained focused on cementing his lyrical legacy.
On the album’s lead single “I’m Back” with help from D.I.T.C. aficionado Buckwild, AZ takes a more hardline approach to his Nation of Gods and Earth influence right out the gate: “Spirit of Marcus Garvey, Fard Muhammad, Medgar Evers and Bob Marley, I’m God-Body.” By name, Aziatic is an homage to the organization, whose ideology, imagery, and vernacular are inseparable from hip-hop culture. From its inception in the early ‘60s, the Gods focused their energy toward youth outreach, which would go on to become affixed to the street tales of New York’s five boroughs, by giants of the game like AZ, Rakim, and Raekwon, to name a few.
In teacher mode, The Visualizer continues to drop jewels over one of Buckwild’s most soulful beats, expressing “You can tell somebody raised me with sense / we all need something to help us through our daily events / bear with me.” The kid who dazzled us eight years earlier, with wisdom that appeared to be several years beyond his youthful sound, was now kicking grown man bars for the youth. It sounded like the natural evolution of the emcee who spit “we were beginners in the hood as five percenters / but something must’ve got in us / ‘cause all of us turned to sinners” nearly a decade earlier on “Life’s a Bitch.”
AZ was back to claim his seat amongst the immortals and he was as comfortable with his star power and skill matching that of super producer Buckwild, as Big Daddy Kane ever seemed when teaming with Marley Marl circa 1988. Delivering his potent rhymes with an ear for the instruments provided by Buck, he stays on pace and even boasts, “The focus is back, I play a part in this culture of rap / bought some whips so I relate on how these vultures attack.”
From the onset of the album, AZ reminds us that a large part of his appeal is that he possesses arguably the vastest vocabulary of any emcee, and can rapidly deliver seven-letter words with ease like Kool G. Rap in his prime. After he offers his salutations, AZ recounts his glory days, which were not too far behind, on “Once Again,” stating for the record: “You attract some of the baddest when you platinum status / that's why I stay with prophylactics after what happened to Magic / Six days of my creation had to relax on the Sabbath.”
On “Fan Mail,” AZ uses the “open letter” format and with the first verse reverses Nas’ “One Love” theme as a fan corresponds with him from prison. The second verse is a complimentary letter from a sane fan, not obsessing over her favorite rapper like Eminem’s Stan, just simply reminding him that he is the illest: “My life's deep, it coincide with the way that you rap / I hate it when them commentators say that you back / you never left you was always years ahead of the rest.”
Of course the most anticipated moment of the album was the expected reunion with now longtime friend and former Firm affiliate Nasir Jones, picking up where the duo left off on “The Flyest” from Nas’ Stillmatic (2001) released only a few months earlier. Over Beatminerz’ Baby Paul’s smooth track, Sosa and Escobar trade lyrics bar for bar on “The Essence,” complimenting each other’s clothing selection as the two swag gods prepare for a Deniece Williams concert. The smooth hook “Yo we hard hit, just like Comacho and Vargas / who's the target / now watch how we close the market / We both hard hit, just like Hagler and Hearns / add the math, be concerned, if it's beef you burn / Yo it's sorta like, Poitier and Bill Cosby / 'Let's Do It Again,' a beautiful blend, let’s do it to win” is another gem for fans to absorb, as their perfect chemistry puts them in the conversation of the greatest duos along the likes of Raekwon and Ghostface. The single itself was met with critical acclaim, landing the pair a Grammy nod and helped earn AZ another Gold certification to add to his storied career.
“Hustler,” the album’s posse cut, features AZ’s Quiet Money affiliates, whom he had showcased on his last two LPs, in addition to their memorable mixtape appearances. Members Trav (whose smooth flow is reminiscent of Half-A-Mil’s, another close AZ associate who would meet his untimely death a year later) and Animal (whose husky baritone is similar to Brooklyn Don, the Notorious B.I.G.), would often serve as the finisher on group collaborations. This track takes AZ back into street mode as he paints the picture of late night Brooklyn with vivid lines like, “I blacks out, never blind by the size of the image / no disguise, homicide don't rely on forensic / homes's finished, scrambling caught in the scrimmage / 12 shells ricocheting and it pours from the hemorrhage.”
At a minimum AZ’s 2002 return helped kick off the summer, as his flow helped cool the atmosphere that became saturated with rifts between rival crews. With his previous two albums not receiving the acclaim of his 1995 debut Doe or Die, his loyal devotees were excited to see him back in the conversation of rap’s elite.
This reemergence of one of rap’s greatest underdog emcees inspired many to head to the mall for a fresh pair of sneaks, tighten up the waves in their fades or caesars, and never be discouraged by detractors that discount your talent and self-worth.