Sometimes it seems like AZ is living in the past. But when the past means unassailable lyrics, workhorse beats and minimal choruses that seem built more for your stereo than your TV, it's hard to argue with the New York emcee. Last year's A.W.O.L. got zero heat, despite solid singles and some really strong beats and rhymes. He comes back quick here with The Format, but sadly it's just not as good, and it doesn't come close to the rapper's two best, Doe or Die (1995) and Aziatic (2002).[more:]
The Format has some very big highs, though. "I Am the Truth" continues AZ's opening-banger streak, a great brag track whose bridge is show-stopping. The Premier-produced title track is equally strong, though it can't compare to Premier's best. The highlight is the long-leaked "Game of Life," thankfully rescued from obscurity to be included here. The track's perfect: It sounds like it could have been made twelve years ago, at the height of hip-hop's second golden age, when its sloping vocal sample and horn intro would have fit right in. Its follow-up, the bonus track "Royal Salute," has also been floating around the Net, and it's a great 50 dis, with the same kind of soaring horn beat that AZ works best with.
Nothing on The Format is bad, but it lacks the forward-looking choices AZ made on his last LP without adding anything to the void. Lil' Fame of M.O.P. offers a few great beats (though pound for pound, industry regular Emile comes off best, with many of the strongest beats I've heard from him), and Little Brother (sans a 9th Wonder beat) makes a guest appearance. But what AZ really comes across as on The Format is an above-average emcee in the trenches, making strong LPs and putting them out when they're ready. It's a worthy cause, and it continues a great career, but in this age where New York rappers are either making event records like Kingdom Come or building up a revolution like Fishscale, it seems dangerously behind the times.
***"The Format" video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCvupVeD0-8
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