On Illmatic’s “Life’s A Bitch”, a young unknown high-pitched raspy-voiced emcee named AZ made arguably the greatest debut cameo appearance in hip-hop history, matching the soon to be god emcee, Nas, bar for bar. His swift flow and stellar vocabulary left hip-hop heads mesmerized and anticipating more from the Brooklyn native. It would only be a matter of time before the Record labels would come knocking on his door, and AZ would eventually sign to EMI, where he would release his debut album, Doe Or Die.
AZ would use a few of the same producers Nas used to craft the sound of Illmatic (Pete Rock and L.E.S.) and he would call on a few other beatmakers to contribute to Doe Or Die’s production. The album experienced some commercial success, peaking at number 15 on the Billboard Top 200 and number 1 on the Top US R&B/Hip-Hop charts, with the lead single, “Sugar Hill” earning AZ a gold plaque. Doe Or Die also received critical acclaim, receiving positive reviews from the critics and love from the streets.
Even with AZ receiving critical acclaim and experiencing his own level of success with Doe Or Die, he never seemed to be able to get out of the shadow of Nas’ wings. Over the years, AZ has released a slew of respectable album and built a cult-like following, but never experienced the commercial success or super stardom that some of his less talented peers would.
Intro – AZ returns Nas’ invite from Illmatic, as he joins him on this intro, but this is no “Genesis”, folks. Nas does a horrible job trying to sound like a Sicilian Mafia boss, as he and Sosa chop it up, before our host goes into a yawn-provoking spoken word piece over a bunch of noise that is the audio equivalent of the Chinese water torture technique.
Uncut Raw – AZ picks up where he left off at on “Life’s A Bitch”, delivering high energy well-articulated bars with his quality flow and delivery: “This is as, pure as opium, purified for street players to open ’em, Space like three L’s laced with coke in ’em, shots awoken ’em, fake uniform Jakes approach ’em, six trips to young clicks and killers coachin ’em”. The Loose produced instrumental (with a co-production credit going to AZ) works as the perfect accomplish to AZ’s street paintings, and it lives up to the song title.
Gimme Yours – Pete Rock gets his first production credit of the evening, lacing AZ with a breezy feel good backdrop that our host uses to discuss his never ending pursuit of the mighty dollar. And he also reuses one of the swaggiest words ever used in a hip-hop song: schweppervescence. Nas drops in again, this time to sing the hook and add a few adlibs to this gem of a song that still sounds fresh and amazing after all these years.
Ho Happy Jackie -Buckwild loops up a slick Kool & The Gang sample for AZ to eloquently call out and warn others about the snares of promiscuous Ho Happy Jackie: “So married or single, watch out for Jackie when you jingle, she might sting you and aint no telling what that sting’ll bring you, you could fall off point and get careless, lose all awareness, go hairless, why she wouldn’t care if, you go bankrupt, her lifestyle’s corrupt, so knowledge before you wisdom or understanding is fucked”. This is definitely one of the highlights on Doe Or Die, and one of the greatest “Jezebel” songs in the history of hip-hop.
Rather Unique – Pete Rock gets his second and final production credit of the evening. This time he provides our host with a melodic mid-tempo banger (accompanied by a well-placed Big Daddy Kane vocal snippet on the hook) that AZ completely annihilates, while showing off his vast vocabulary and potent flow. AZ actually got The Source’s once highly sought after Hip-Hop Quotable Column for the second verse in this song. These are the type of bars that leave me wondering why AZ is so underappreciated. This is an unheralded classic.
I Feel For You – Not including the horrendous intro, this is the first real misstep on Doe Or Die. AZ serves up quality bars, but the heavy drums sound like dirty vinyl skipping and the repetitive two chord melody from the female voice (who the liner notes credit to a Erica Scott) quickly becomes annoying and begins to wear on the ears.
Sugar Hill – L.E.S. sticks to his script of flagrantly ripping eighties R&B hits, this time targeting Juicy’s “Sugar Free”. AZ uses it to dream about becoming successful and able to live like his ancestors before him in the historic wealthy African-American neighborhood that the song title references (do your Googles!). Miss Jones (whom we last heard acting like she wanted to put Prince Markie D’s dick in her mouth throughout Love Daddy) pops up to sing a decent but uninspired hook on a song that I’ve never liked, but I completely understand why AZ used it as his debut single.
Mo Money Mo Murder (Homicide) – Nas drops by for a third time (well, fourth if you count the adlibs he added to the end of “Uncut Raw”), but this time he actually spits bars, taking on his Escobar persona to spar with Sosa, as the two exchange Mafioso rhymes over DR Period’s sophisticated backdrop. This duet is nowhere near as potent as the duo’s performance on “Life’s A Bitch”, but its still quality. After the song ends, AZ slips in a short hidden interlude, as he spits a quick gloomy verse over a desolate backdrop that I actually enjoyed…in a depressed kind of way.
Doe Or Die – New Orleans Joe gets an odd production credit on Doe Or Die, as he slides our host one of his signature slow-cooked southern-synth instrumental that sticks out like a sore thump amongst the rest of the East Coast-flavored production we’ve heard to this point. It’s not a terrible song, just not my cup of tea.
We Can’t Win – What a bleak song title. Thankfully, AZ and his guests’ (Amar and another uncredited male voice whose tone sounds very similar to AZ’s, and according to Genius.Com his name is Barsham) content doesn’t sound as hopeless. The trio actually spit the most conscious rhymes on Doe Or Die with this one; and the voice at the beginning and end of the song sounds like the Oswald Bates character from In Living Color. This makes for decent filler material.
Your World Don’t Stop – AZ dedicates this one to all the brothers locked up, as he uses the serious sounding instrumental (which the liner notes say was originally produced by Spunk Biggs, then remixed by Ski aka Ski Beatz) to come from the perspective of a convict whose trying to stay sane and optimistic as he awaits the end of his bid and a return to freedom. Our host proves to be a sufficient storyteller on this solid record.
Sugar Hill (Remix) – Even though it doesn’t sound blatantly pop like the original mix, I still don’t like it. Thirty seconds or so after this remix ends, dirge like piano chords come in. I’m assuming the somber chords symbolize the “Die” option in the album’s title. Regardless, this concludes Doe Or Die.
Even with redundant content and a few underwhelming beat selections, AZ is able to conjure up a quality debut album in Doe Or Die, as he recaptures some of the microphone magic we first heard him display on Illmatic. The album could probably use a two or three song shaving, but as is, it’s still dope. And I’ll resist the obviously strong urge to compare it to Illmatic.