Happy 20th Anniversary to AZ’s second studio album Pieces of a Man, originally released April 7, 1998.
America has always had a fascination with its criminal underworld, and although this fixation had always been present in hip-hop, the mid ‘90s became saturated with language and imagery indebted to organized crime. By 1995, a new generation of emcees sat comfortably in the driver’s seat, steering hip-hop in a new direction, and for many, Kool G. Rap’s earlier records were the roadmap for the culture’s destination. Songs like “Streets of New York” from Wanted: Dead or Alive (1990) and “On the Run” from Live and Let Die (1992) became the manifesto of rap’s first Godfather whose aura inspired famous aliases like Nas Esobar, the Wu-Gambinos, and AZ Sosa.
Although there was a backlash among hip-hop purists at the time, in retrospect it is undeniable that the lyrical and visual influence of this obsession with the Latin American drug cartels and Italian Cosa Nostra helped create some classic LPs during the decade. Seminal to this movement was AZ’s 1995 debut album Doe or Die which was one of the most anticipated albums of that year after his epic introduction on Nas’ inaugural 1994 effort Illmatic.
Doe or Die was rewarded both critically and commercially for AZ’s crisp lyrical delivery, superb beat selection, and broad optics of the entire landscape of life within the Big Apple. AZ was successful at stepping from behind the shadow of his partner Nas with the LP’s very first single “Sugar Hill.” AZ brought listeners directly into his vantage point as an up-and-comer with a hustler’s ambition through vivid lyrics such as, “At times I window watch out the Marriott / zoning on owning co-ops, foreign drop-top coupes and yachts / guzzling straight shots of scotch / formulating up plots to escape from 'Salem's Lot / cause it's scorching hot.”
With Doe or Die, AZ managed to secure a broad audience and keep them engaged for an entire LP with his versatility as a songwriter. Songs like the Pete Rock produced “Rather Unique” balanced the album by exposing AZ’s more introspective side, evidenced in lyrics like, “ You can try to blind me, analyze but can't define me / my mind's divine, heavily entwined with Gandhi's / far from feeble, I leave your nostrils hard to breathe through / cause my cerebrals are more of a higher plane than the Hebrews.”
Nearly three years after his solo debut, AZ fans finally received his second LP, which was released with the added pressure of being the first project by a Firm member since their 1997 collaboration. The super-group of Nas, AZ, Foxy Brown, and Nature which featured heavyweight production from Dr. Dre and the Trackmasters didn’t cause as big of an industry splash as expected. It also arguably helped fizzle the flame of “Mafioso Rap” that had begun to dominate the East Coast’s brand for a sizable length of time.
Pieces of a Man’s intended lead single “Hey AZ” featured SWV and left AZ’s more diehard fans who had followed him since “Life’s a Bitch” and the mixtape circuit a bit baffled regarding his decision to rhyme over the same sample used for Mariah Carey’s 1997 single “Honey.” But for whatever reason, the song never made the final cut of the LP. The next song that seemed to surface to the airways was “What’s the Deal” featuring the late Kenny Greene from the R&B group Intro. Detailing his plans for a weekend getaway with his lady, the song missed its mark in scoring big with a crossover audience, similar to “Hey AZ” which was also produced by the Trackmasters.
The most anticipated moment of the LP of course was AZ’s lyrical duet with Nas, which doesn’t disappoint. Not as grim as Illmatic’s “Life’s a Bitch” or Doe or Die’s “Mo Money, Mo Murder, Mo Homicide,” “How Ya Livin” begins a trend where the two highly regarded wordsmiths exchange bars on celebrating the good life. Nas opens with rhymes that boast of his penchant for high fashion and other expensive tastes rapping, “Back to back Benzes, with the wild gremlins / Gaudier style lenses, talons in the .40 Cal, this is / Life now, let me find out, you want the life style of mine / no pal of mine /runnin' wit goons wit knife wounds from jail time / got the squad lookin' like tycoon, we all shine.”
In perfect stride, AZ takes Nas’ assist like Shawn Kemp catching an alley-oop from Gary Payton as he continues the celebratory theme, adding, “Convince the urban, project, ghetto prince emergin' / half Hispanic, hollow tips, massive damage / the path was granted, loaded gats, blast the cannon / chipped up, live by morals don't get it mixed up / dis what? millionaire strut, wit the Crist cup.” The duo’s friendly sparring also adds to the ongoing debate that AZ leads the series in head-to-head matchups.
The majority of the LP follows the lead of the introduction where AZ opens on a reflective note, explaining to listeners “Play the game for my people stay in charge of your dreams / keep your vision focused, get wise, and largen your cream/ marketin' schemes, so many in the dark that's unseen/ caught in between, perhaps rap was a fortunate thing/ forced to be keen, from hustlin', supportin' them fiends/ bustin' guns, I had no remorse as a teen.” Here, AZ sounds more like the wiser gangster that has seen the error of the street life, like a character from a Donald Goines novel.
“Love is Love” proved that AZ still had chemistry with the Trackmasters, although his protégé Half-A-Mil steals the show the way AZ frequently manages to do with Nas. The fellow Brooklynite seemed completely at home on the track spitting lines like, “Knowledge the green Wally's, all I see, my mind hold math like caller ID / chose the path that chose me / I'mma tell you like G-O-D told me / greed, lust, hate and envy / sweet dust from shanty.” With Nature ending the song and the short cameo from Foxy Brown on the Bad Boy hitman Nashiem Myrick produced “Trail of the Century,” the album stood to reassure fans that The Firm still had solidarity.
Perhaps connected through Nation of Gods and Earth ideology, Wu-Tang’s RZA dropped in for “What Ever Happened,” where he pulls double duty, producing the track and trading God-Body lyrics with one of the finest.
Without much of a push from the dissolving Noo Trybe Records, Pieces of a Man went on to sell just around the 500,000 mark, which is a testament to AZ’s reputation as a compelling craftsman. While many formidable emcees have been jinxed their second go ‘round, AZ’s sophomore album helped reinforce his standing among New York rap giants and is an entry that cannot be ignored in one of the more intriguing yet unsung catalogs in rap history.