Looking back at the career of a rapper in his mid-30s is often a lesson in peaks and valleys, fashions and fads, and compared with his more famous peers, AZ is a model of consistency: Snoop Dogg seems to have had more hairstyles than Hillary Clinton; Jay-Z has collaborated with everyone from Blackstreet and the Roots to Linkin Park and Phish; Nas has produced so many clunkers and befuddlers as moments of unparalleled brilliance that a more appropriate nickname for the rap prophet may be God’s Prodigal Son. It was on Nas’s legendary debut Illmatic that AZ made his name, with the only guest spot on the entire album, an incendiary verse on “Life’s a Bitch” wrought with blistering internal rhymes, religious wonderings, and beautifully-made up vocabulary: “Keepin the schwepervesence street ghetto essence inside us/‘Cause it provides us with the proper insight to guide us.” Since that auspicious introduction, the Brownsville native has kept a relatively low profile, save participation in the high-profile super-disaster group the Firm, releasing a catalog of eight albums of New York-centric, DJ-Premier-inspired hip-hop that if, having failed to wow critics and fans, impresses by its continuing lyrical richness and disdaining of current production trends, and Undeniable is yet another entry in AZ’s admirable career that finds the rapper talented as ever but running dangerously low on new ideas.
The AZ of Illmatic and his own debut, Doe or Die, was a hardening up-and-comer intoxicated with the idea of success. “Sugar Hill,” the closest he came to a hit, found AZ “formulating up plots to escape from Salem’s lot ‘cause it’s scorching hot/Making it hard trying to figure who’s out to trap me, Pataki.” The AZ of 2008 is markedly calmer, more stoic about the trappings of musical fame. He adopts the attitude of a rap teacher, full of advice: “Nobody’s perfect once you scratch through the surface/See life like a circus, and we all serve a purpose.” Standouts “The Game Don’t Stop,” “Fire,” and the title track present AZ’s patented rapid-fire, high-pitched flow musing on his 10-plus years as a recording artist. At his best, AZ could be mistaken for a Wu-Tang member, dropping dazzling science: “Young messiah, admired by entire towns, sun fire stay higher than Mariah’s sound.” The smooth synths and R&B vocals don’t seem to correctly fit AZ’s approach, however comfortable he may be. His lyrics are typically terrific on “Life on the Line,” but the production is more evocative of a day at the beach, and it hardly sounds like anyone’s life is on the line.
AZ should be forgiven for including for-the-ladies filler like “Parkin Lot Pimpin’” and “Go Getta,” as well as the Styles P collaboration “The Hardest”—which, even though it is one of the album’s strongest tracks, has been around since last year, when it was an iTunes bonus track on Styles’ Super Gangster (Extraordinary Gentleman) LP. AZ proved a long time ago that he is neither the sharpest beat-chooser nor greatest album-arranger. The guy is a lyricist first and foremost, and one can only wonder what magic things might happen were he to be taken under the wing of a savvy producer looking to revive the career of a neglected emcee. Think Madlib’s recent work with Percee P, or Kanye West’s with Common. AZ still has many years of ahead of him, and well-formed rhymes to boot. It just may turn out that his highest peak is yet to come.