July 2, 2008

AZ - Doe or Die (October 10, 1995)

The phenomenon of getting your personal weed carriers signed to a record deal of their own is a natural occurrence in all musical genres, from hard-hitting rock to alternative polka that can get your girl's panties to drop, but it seems to occur with alarming frequency in hip hop. I can't remember the last time that I checked out another hip hop blog and didn't see a single or a mixtape by an "artist" piggybacking off of their famous friends. Hell, I could probably spend an entire year writing about a different weed carrier every single day (although I will not do that: Max needs his fresh air).

In most cases, I've noticed that the "name" artist will use their baggage handler's album to promote themselves, not their friends, in the traditional "obviously you can see why I'm making more money than them" manner. And that point is usually one hundred percent accurate: usually the guy whose day job is to make sure your khakis are pressed just so isn't really that good of a rapper, and only ends up getting the deal in the first place because the label has convinced themselves (foolishly, in most cases) that the successful and more popular artist will be all over their boy's disc, thus guaranteeing at least enough sales to pay off that coke and whore habit that has damn near bankrupted more than one record label.

It isn't very often that a rapper's own tortilla warmer handles the microphone with enough ease to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their more popular peers. It is extremely rare when a rapper's personal grill disinfectant actually possesses the skills necessary to outshine the primary breadwinner.

The AZ story is not one of the latter examples, but depending on your point of view, it might be one of the former.

Anthony Cruz saw his popularity rise when he was pulled directly off of the stoop in front of his building and thrown into a recording studio with his friend Nasir Jones, who at the time was an aspiring artist that hadn't yet felt what kind of impact some critical acclaim can have on one's career (and, one assumes, had not yet developed the sack one needs to spout statements such as "Hip hop is dead" (no matter how true) and the inherent pretension to even consider ever titling an album N----r). Nas had a few singles floating around, and was in the midst of recording his debut Illmatic when he partnered up with AZ (and, it should be noted, Olu Dara, Nas's father) for "Life's A Bitch", a track that would soon become one of the most popular joints on an album chock full of good songs, regardless of the fact that AZ fucks up and uses the phrase "money-orientated" as if it actually makes some sense (although it certainly wouldn't be the first time a rapper had made up a word to better fit a rhyme pattern).

His guest spot was well-received (thankfully, since he was the only other rapper to actually appear on Illmatic), and AZ soon found himself courting offers from record labels, signing up with EMI in 1995. His debut disc, Doe or Die, followed shortly thereafter.

In the field of East Coast hip hop, AZ is primarily known as one of two rappers that popularized the rapper-as-Mafia-gangster theme that plagued New York rap like a cancer in the mid-to-late nineties. (For those of you that are interested, Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan would be the other rapper, but his crew quickly ditched their Wu-Gambino names shortly following Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., even if Raekwon tried to hold on to it as long as possible.) Doe or Die is essentially a concept album, a tale told from the point of view of a low-level thug with big dreams, and all of the highs and lows that accompany a successful person in this particular arena.

Doe or Die ended up selling very well, and although it didn't garner as much critical acclaim as Illmatic, at least critics regarded AZ as an actual artist, and not as some guy that only got a deal because of his association with Nas (*cough* Bravehearts *cough*).

Ready? Let's begin.

Bullshit rap album intro. (Did you really expect me to say something different?) Anthony Cruz even manages to offend members of both the Arab and Asian communities with one sentence.

Seriously, Doe or Die could have jumped straight to this track (which sounds really good today) and listeners would have been engaged from the very beginning. Instead, I had to sit through the intro, and as a result, I find myself already annoyed with this album, although I'm getting over it.

Pete Rock's production takes you back to a simpler time in hip hop, and AZ's unwavering focus on success ("...until my hands touch a million plus/Ain't much to discuss") is damn near derailed by, of all things, Nas singing the hook. This was still early on in Nasir's career, too: what the hell was he thinking?

I just heard this track, and for the life of me I couldn't remember a damn thing about it. I guess it couldn't have been that impressive, eh?

This Peter Q. Rockefeller production is neither hard-hitting nor soft: it's simply pleasant. (I know that sounds like harsh criticism, but it really isn't.) AZ spits his usual gibberish-with-some-clever-wordplay-thrown-in-for-good-measure, and sounds good enough that you'll wish that he exclusively worked with top shelf producers. Even if the title is a bit goofy.

The beat is relatively simple, but I have to admit that I liked it. AZ's not a bad lyricist, but I can understand why he never hit it big; it must be hard living in Nas's shadow (well, back then, anyway: not so much today).

The first single, and the first time that hip hop heads ever heard AZ spit on his own. I never cared for this song, since it sounds waaaay too radio friendly for what is ostensibly a monologue in which a budding mafioso describes, in vivid detail, what he wants out of life.

I know it's because of the beat's pacing, but AZ and Nasir sound like their vocals have been slowed down a bit too much. Otherwise, this is pretty good. It makes you forget that Nas had an earlier guest spot on Doe or Die. The hook just sounds like four random sentences strung together, though. The extra song that immediately follows, "Born Alone, Die Alone", is pretty short, and doesn't distract one bit from the listening experience, even if it is a bit depressing, kind of like one of those flash-forwards on Lost.

Back in the day, I always felt that AZ's first three singles sounded much too polished to be representative of the New York sound at the time. I still don't like "Sugar Hill", but I have always liked this track, and the smooth beats helps the medicine go down.

AZ obliterates his guest over this moody composition, but to be fair, Amar does the best he can. The hook almost derails this train, but otherwise the ride is only slightly bumpy (due to Anthony's conspiracy theories).

This tale, told from the confines of a fictional cell block, would have sounded more effective without the lame-ass chanting of the title that is worked into the beat. However, I guess lame-ass chanting can help prisoners picture a world outside of their cell, a world with the freedom to choose to not incorporate lame-ass chanting into your song's beat, so in that manner, this song is successful. In fact, if I ever run for public office, that's the platform I plan on winning with.

Okay, okay. I like the remix more, because the beat sounds more like what I expected from New York at the time, but I'll be the first to admit that the hook makes absolutely no fucking sense unless you're familiar with the original version. The addition of faster-paced drums is beneficial, though.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Doe or Die actually surprised me a bit. I don't remember the album sounding this good. While it' snot even close to great, it seems to hold up well, even with the awful missteps (mainly, Nas's singing) and zero deviation in the album's subject matter. AZ is no megahypertalented lyricist, but he does well for himself, and comes off as a weed carrier that probably should have his own weed carriers.

BUY OR BURN? This isn't bad at all. I would actually recommend you pick this one up, at an actual store, one with a cash register and four walls (ceiling optional). Especially recommended for all of you deluded fans of that shitty album by The Firm: you'll love this disc, and I'll actually be inclined to agree with you this time out.

BEST TRACKS: "Doe or Die"; "Rather Unique"; "Uncut Raw"; "Mo Money. Mo Murder (Homicide)"

B-SIDES TO TRACK DOWN: "Gimme Yours (Remix)" - Apparently EMI also agreed that having Nas sing the hook was asinine, so Erick Sermon was commissioned to remix the track with an unknown female vocalist singing Nas's chorus. Also hunt down "Doe or Die (RZA Remix)", featuring AZ and Raekwon the Chef ripping shit over an unorthodox and unequivocally dope beat by The Rza, and no, I'm not just saying that because I'm a Wu stan.



  1. I see where you coming from with this album. AZ can kinda of turn cats with his flow (seems like at times he just throws words into his rhymes just to continue the flow coughs *Life's A Bit*h*). Yet, the visualiza (probably spelled wronged) does hold his own on his debut. I actually liked Nas onm *Gimme Yours* and one of my fav tracks on the album is "We Can't Win". No Bad for AZ to come into this thang called rappin'

    Cool Review!!!!

  2. AnonymousJuly 02, 2008

    Nas' singing isnt that bad, the flaws of the album are Sugar Hill & I Feel For You

  3. the most felonious vocalist in the wide world of showbusinessJuly 02, 2008

    The Doe or Die remix is terrific. Very short, but great nonetheless. This is a very good album by a severely underrated rapper. Not an all world lyricist but his flow is undeniable.

    Also, you are officially a Nas hater, Max.

  4. I am surprised you didnt like "HO HAPPY JACKIE" I think its one of the best from the album.

    Great Review, Tnx Man!

  5. Uncut Raw, Rather Unique, and We Can't Win all bang.

    Great album except for the Sugar Hill single.

    Doe or Die Remix is a must-listen for anyone who hasn't heard it. Sick beat.

  6. Sean JuanJuly 17, 2008

    Doe or Die is one of my favorite hip hop albums, and AZ is one of my favorite MCs of all time. I feel he is extremely underrated and always will be. To my ears this album is a gem, I can play it straight through and start it all over again. It's perfect to me, but part of that feeling may come from nostalgia. I was a little surprised/disappointed with your review, but hey honesty is the key here and it's always appreciated.

    Speaking of making up words to fit the rhyme ("money orientated"), I gotta mention a favorite of mine from Black Thought on Rising Down's "75 Bars" where he says he's 'internationable'

  7. I can't lie; I'm a little bit disgusted by this review. Doe or Die is a classic. This album defines an entire era as well as the mentality of the entire east coast. If you never lived the life AZ talks about or ever been around alot of this type of shit, you won't understand it. This album is a soundtrack for day to day hustling and struggling in the streets. Doe or Die is like a book in the Bible; a chapter from the Qur'an. These songs were meant to be blasted out of Lexus and Acura systems in NYC, Philly and Baltimore.

  8. Honestly I didnt like this review. I am a huge fan of Nas and AZ and I think it deserved better. This album is a classic!

  9. what?? how come u dont like sugar hill???max you are one weird shit head you know that right?

  10. i always thought "money orientated" was supposed to sound like microphone fiend, where rakim says "music orientated." maybe it's a coincidence, though.

  11. AnonymousJune 18, 2009

    Though Nas can't sing he did it well on Gimme Yours, very soulful, you can't deny it.

    Ho Happy Jackie is classic, Buckwild is damn near perfect with this beat.

    Nas hating is kinda poor taste, maan))


  12. I found that the album was aiming to follow the layout of Illmatic. Intro and stronger track right at the beginning, then oddly enough Nas & AZ on the third track and although the Pete Rock track wasn't number for was just as close.

    Also I feel like Doe Or Die is like the transition album from Illmatic to Reasonable Doubt. Listen to either album then Doe Or Die then the other album and it makes a great transition in styles, because AZ had the Nas-like flow but Jay-Z content on this album.

    Also I don't know if anyone noticed this and NO I'm not saying they are the same or equal albums, but in terms of title concept...

    Doe Or Die = Get Rich Or Die Trying

    Exact same concept... though AZ's is much better (or even more poetic) sounding.... Also AZ is dope and quite poetic so that obviously increases the title value.

    I also feel this album was overshadowed Reasonable Doubt, OB4CL..., Liquid Swords, Me Against The World, All Eyez On Me and Ready To Die... oh and of course Illmatic, but when people mention good albums Doe Or Die gets lost in those albums.

    SIDE NOTE - Max you haven't done 2Pac's Me Against The World.

    I'm not going to suggest All Eyez On Me because I don't think that album is good. I feel it has good songs (people really need to stop trying to do double albums, they really just feel like albums with the throw-aways) but is not a good album. I think its ranking is more because of the hype surrounding it I feel the same about The Blueprint, Stillmatic and Life After Death. There was so much intense lead up, that when the album dropped people were so quick to claim them at classic. No doubt they have good songs, some really great but I've never felt they need to be called classics.

  13. AZ should added the remix to Doe or Die, Lyrically, that song is the shit!

  14. I wonder how could you pick up Uncut Raw beat over Ho Happy Jackie, while the latter is one of the finest works of Buckwild EVER!

    All in all, a fair review.

    Also y'all must check original version of Your World Don't Stop (produced by Spunk Bigga, didn't get on album due sample clearance shit). Original melody gives much more sense to the lyrics than an album one.


  15. I must say: This album is one with so much lost potential. A very good album that could've been an undisputed classic.

    The singles all have vastly superior remixes, sample clearance issues ruined at least one track on the album and some production choices are absolutely baffling. I mean, come on AZ: How can you not tell the difference between Lunatic Mind's brilliant work and the complete assery provided by Amar Pep and Loose?

    Furthermore, it looks like AZ really wanted to shake off the Nas comparisons you alluded to in the review. That's why the formula he copies is actually reminiscent of Biggie rather than Nas. And the original beat to Doe Or Die, while dope, sounds SO out of place on this album. I'd rather listen to this dope-ass remix by legendary Bostonians the Vinyl Reanimators.


    Oh, and the original Gimme Yours remains the dopest of the four original singles. Yep, even with Nas' vocal atrocities.