For some emcees, all it takes is a verse to cement their legacy in hip-hop. For AZ it was his appearance on Nasir Jones’s Illmatic and the opening bar of “Life’s a Bitch” — “visualizing the realism of life and actuality” — that launched a career spanning ten-plus years and five LPs. But unlike countless emcees who never parlayed guest appearances into solo careers, AZ proved he could hold the lyrical weight on his near-classic freshman offering, 1995’s Do or Die. AZ is from the era of lyricists, when emcees were more like correspondents for the black CNN (a.k.a. hip-hop), reporting, never glorifying, street life. That said, AZ’s A.W.O.L. plays like a trip down memory lane, recalling the time when New York City was the epicenter of hip-hop and when lyrical content dominated.
It seems fitting that the lead single, “The Come Up,” is laced by the legendary DJ Premier. The Brooklyn-to-Brooklyn connection is a nearly perfect intermingling of Primo’s intricate cuts and royal horns over AZ ‘s ode to the thorough-est borough. On “New York,” AZ, Ghostface and Raekwon run a verbal clinic over Emile’s Cuban Linx-esque blaring sirens and sinister violin loops. On “Neva Change,” the immensely underrated Heatmakerz bring soul to the album, giving AZ a chance to reminisce over fallen friends: “Somebody please slowly explain/ if they just wanted some jewels why didn’t they go for the chain?/ If they just wanted some news they coulda left him in his Hanes/ But, no, they just left a nigga breathless and banged.”
As an added bonus, A.W.O.L. contains three tracks off the heavily bootlegged and never officially released Final Call. On “Live Wire,” D.I.T.C. producer Buckwild brings in the heavy hardware and moody blues guitar rifts; “Magic Hour” sports an appearance by the Mecca-don CL Smooth; and “The Truth” features AZ flossing his flow like an over-bejeweled Jesus piece: “I am all about chillin’ fam/ house, car/ ceiling fans./ Had a run/ sold a nice amount of kilograms.”
With the exception of old-school remakes of Audio Two’s “Top Billin’ ” (“AZ’s Chillin’ ”) and Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” (“Bedtime Story”), AZ remains on message like a politician running for re-election. A.W.O.L. won’t bring rap back to the golden era, but for just a moment AZ relights the torch and carries NYC on his back.