October 10, 2021

AZ "Doe or Die" (October 10, 1995 / Spin Magazine)

The season has been good for B-Boy acquisitionists. From the hustler-turned-Versace-shade-wearer lingo of the Notorious B.I.G. to Chef Raekwon's episodic narratives of Lexus drivers and Cuban Link sporters, to Mobb Deep's stark pronouncements of need-the-loot-now-don't-fuck-wit-me-or-catch-a-bad-one, New York's latest crop of rhyme animals are living the "gimme" ethic to the fullest. Call it the Eastern sibling of the West's gangsta ethos. But New York's hardcore skips racial and cultural divides in its quest for inspiration. Heads have appropriated the mythos of figures like celluloid Cuban druglord Tony Montana, and real life New York crime boss John Gotti, to produce work marked by a curious balance of earnest yearning and bad-bwoy talk. On the surface, newcomer AZ would appear to fit into this mode quite snugly. First introduced to the hip-hop arena through a guest appearance on Nas's Illmatic, AZ has returned with a debut of his own, Doe or Die. His lead single, "Sugar Hill," does delve wholeheartedly into the material pool: "At times I window watch out the Marriott / Zonin' on ownin' co-ops / Foreign drop top coupes and yachts." However, the song is sprinkled throughout with the element that sets AZ apart from his capital-collectin' peers, acute political awareness: "Making it hard trying to figure out who's out to trap me / Pataki [Governor of New York] got all kind of undercovers that's coming at me / Perhaps he won't be happy till they snatch me and place me / Where half us blacks be / Sittin' in Coxsackie." Nas steadily rips on Christianity. Biggie may be invested with suicidal tendencies. But only AZ offers a grounded critique of the larger structures wreaking havoc upon the urban-dwelling body. Revisit/more below...

Doe or Die unfolds in a well-sketched procession. On the appropriately title "Gimme," AZ pours forth a tale of loot capers and ghetto aspirations in a rapid-patterned delivery reminiscent--but for the high tonality--of the godfather of the hip-hop hustle ethic, Kool G Rap. A duet with Nas, "Mo Money, Mo Murder, Mo Homicide," hypnotically peruses the pleasures and pitfalls of fast cash. Much like Illmatic, Doe or Die's most significant letdown occurs on the musical end. Pete Rock's swing rhythms and smooth keyboard textures, N.O. Joe's Southern-style funk, and D.R.'s lead-out, bass heavy Brooklyn sound do manage to give AZ a powerful platform for half of the album. The other beat-crafters simply can't keep pace. Nevertheless, Doe or Die achieves its purpose: AZ has breathed new air into the lungs of New York hard-rocks. - Spin Magazine (December, 1995). Interesting to read back and see that mild critique of Illmatic's production, however I do agree with some of the beats on Doe or Die, which is why I've always argued that if the unreleased tracks and the few 12" remixes were added, Doe or Die would've surely been an undeniable classic!