November 2, 2008

AZ - Pieces Of A Man (April 7, 1998)



Pieces Of A Man is the second album by rapper Anthony Cruz, professionally known as Lil' Sprite, a/k/a AZ. It differs from his debut, Doe or Die, in that Pieces Of A Man is a terrible album.

You may feel that you no longer have to read the rest of this review. If so, thanks for your patronage.

Oh, you're still here? Okay. AZ's Doe or Die was a surprise hit back in 1995, thanks to his radio-friendly mafia tales, his friendship with fellow rapper Nasir Jones, also known as Big Sprite, a/k/a Nas, and the fact that Doe or Doe was actually good. The chemistry between the two artists, combined with the fact that Nas once saved AZ's life and, as such, felt some sort of responsibility for his well-being, led to Nas forming the supergroup The Firm, which consisted of himself, AZ, Foxy Brown, and Cormega, who was later replaced with weed carrier Nature, who was literally with weed in pocket when he was tapped to replace Mega Montana, but could only do so after he clocked out at Domino's. The Firm was a doomed concept, mostly because this supergroup couldn't ever legally refer to themselves using their own fucking name (thanks to some allegedly obscure rock band that had the name first), but it certainly didn't help that their album was critically panned and spawned zero hit singles, save for "Phone Tap", the Dr. Dre-produced collaboration between Nas and Az (with an assist by Nature). After the release of their only group effort, the four artists packed their shit and walked away from the project. But not before helping AZ create his second disc, Pieces Of A Man.

Since "Phone Tap" was the only successful song on The Firm's album, it makes complete sense that AZ elected to work with everyone that wasn't Dr. Dre when building his sophomore effort. His original label, EMI, sold his contract to Noo Trybe, who clearly was expecting this disc to be some sort of commercial success, and as a result of their interference Pieces Of A Man was positioned to become The Firm Part Deux. The Trackmasters, the production duo responsible for the shift on hip hop radio from hardcore (read: "good") shit to radio-friendly, 1980's sampling piffle, handle the bulk of the album, just as they did with The Firm. Nas, Foxy Brown, and Nature all make sporadic appearances which were probably recorded in the span of eleven minutes, and AZ does his best to keep up appearances that his career isn't going down the toilet. The album sold barely any copies, and one morning AZ found himself without a record deal, Noo Trybe having exercised the clause in their contract to say "Oops!" and cut their losses.

The first single, "Hey AZ", happened to use the same sample as Mariah Carey's "Honey", and was released around the same time. To the surprise of no one, Mariah Carey's track blew the fuck up on radio (I still love the fact that, allegedly, Q-Tip had a hand in producing Mariah's song when it's clearly a Puff Daddy "creation"), and AZ's track was forgotten quickly. So quickly, in fact, that when Pieces Of A Man finally dropped in 1998, it was nowhere to be found on the album, making this one of the first instances that I've come across where a commercially released single failed to earn its spot on its accompanying album.

Here's the thing: back in 1998, I actually liked AZ's songwriting, and I picked this album up from Circuit City the day it dropped. I didn't even bother to wait for class to end: I left campus during lunch to pick up the CD, and at that time I didn't even have a fucking CD player In my car. (Apparently, I had nothing but money and time to burn.) I believe I spun the disc once that night and promptly decided to never listen to the entire thing ever again for the rest of my life, a promise that I'm willing to break for you, my two readers, because I'm bored, and I wanted to write about something.

Enjoy!

1. NEW LIFE (ALBUM INTRO)
I'm certainly glad that you felt the need to fuck up Nina Simone's "Feelin' Good" by adding your own beat, my good sir. This musical tragedy demotes this intro, on which Anthony actually rhymes, to the category of "fuck this shit".

2. I'M KNOWN
Lyrically, AZ sounds exactly the same as he did on Doe or Die. Goldfinga's instrumental sounds incomplete, though, which makes this an empty listening experience. Well, at least it's short.

3. HOW YA LIVIN' (FEAT NAS)
This track is really fucking boring. This exercise in contrasting violent mafia-esque street tales (leftover from the Firm project) with polished, radio-friendly production work by L.E.S. is a flat out failure.

4. TRADING PLACES
Trading Places is a pretty good Eddie Murphy/John Landis collaboration, but regardless of the arguments and infighting that took place behind the scenes (and the intellectual property lawsuits), Coming To America is still my shit. What do you mean, I didn't talk about the song?

5. WHAT'S THE DEAL (FEAT KENNY GREENE)
That title could lead me to the obvious question regarding the very existence of this shitty song, but I'm not going to take the bait.

6. LOVE IS LOVE (FEAT NATURE & HALF-A-MIL)
Did AZ just pronounce "cognac" as "cog-nee-ack"? After a false start with a beat that reminded me of "What's The Deal", except with a completely different rapper (whose verse fades out midway through), the track turns on a dime with a much slower instrumental, a decent-sounding AZ, a terrible second verse by Half-A-Mil, and fellow Firm member Nature rounding out the song, sounding alright, except for when he pronounces "patterns" as "patterins". The fact that the Trackmasters sample a different Nina Simone song (this time, it's "Black Is The Color Of My True Love's Hair") than what Goldfinga used on the shitty intro is intriguing, but just barely.

7. THE PAY BACK
While AZ deserves praise for not simply jacking James Brown and/or EPMD, doing exactly that may have been a more preferred outcome for this Gucci Jones-produces song (great producer name, by the way), which is awfully dull and repetitive, thanks to the plodding instrumental and a feeling of sameness that I've had since the album started playing.

8. JUST BECAUSE
This track has "Trackmasters" written all over it. (Also "Blatant Attempt At Radio Play", "Misfire", and "Terrible Song".) Producer L.E.S. spent a lot of his career working hand-in-hand with Poke and Tone, so the sound of this song may only surprise folks that came to the party after Nas released the L.E.S.-produced "Black Republicans", which sounds absolutely nothing like this claptrap.

9. SOSA
After I picked up Pieces Of A Man, I found myself listening only to two songs: "Whatever Happened (The Birth)", for reasons I'll get to in a minute, and this track, which has always sounded like a natural extension of "Uncut Raw" from Doe or Die, albeit with a Firm polish. The song is also short, almost interlude-length, and I'm sure that I subconsciously picked it thanks to my short attention span, as well. But it is a good song.

10. IT'S A BOY THING (FEAT NATURE)
I realize that "boy" is slang for weed, but seriously, you try listening to Nature's unintentionally hilarious hook and tell yourself that this "drug" song isn't the lamest thing you've ever heard. Oh yeah, sure, this song is for the true drug dealers, the ones that be up on them corners all day long. I'm sure they all fucking love Rod Stewart, and and quote from his songs all the fucking time. Thanks, Nature! Where's Cormega when you fucking need him?

11. PIECES OF A (BLACK) MAN
Not entirely horrible, but I found myself paying closer attention to the beat than to AZ's lyrics. Not because the instrumental is good: as a whole, it's boring. But there are elements of the beat that the Trackmasters saw fit to include, and some of those sound really good. The whole is truly not the sum of its parts. I don't recommend that you listen to this song just so you can hear one or two elements of the beat, though: that would be a waste of your valuable time.

12. LAST DAYZ (FEAT MONIFAH)
Sadly, not a cover of the Onyx classic of the same name. Monifah has a song called "You" that I always believed to be pretty good, even though it wasn't as big a hit as it should have been. As such, her role here, playing the no-name R&B singer on the hook of a boring AZ track, is pretty goddamn depressing.

13. WHATEVER HAPPENED (THE BIRTH) (FEAT THE RZA)
The Rza produced it, and he appears on it. What Wu-Tang stan wouldn't listen to this track more often than the rest? I realize now, ten years removed, that this isn't anywhere close to the best non-Wu Rza beat ever created, but when taken by itself, I still kind of like AZ and Prince Rakeem working together. However, I fully admit that nostalgia may be playing a major part here: newer hip hop heads will probably take to this song not unlike how I take to the shit that's on the radio as we speak.

14. TRIAL OF THE CENTURY (FEAT FOXY BROWN & PANAMA P.I.)
This tale is of no consequence whatsoever. I give credit to Anthony for trying to switch things up on us, and Nashiem Myrick brings us a beat that is pretty theatrical (just as we would expect from the guy that produced Capone-N-Noreaga's "T.O.N.Y." and Biggie's "Who Shot Ya?"), but Panama P.I.'s weak hook (doesn't his name sound like one of those fourth-tier Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters that never received his own spinoff?) and Foxy's (thankfully short) half-verse run this train directly into the side of a barn.

15. BETCHA DON'T KNOW (FEAT KEANNA HENSON)
How the fuck can you end your sophomore album with this piffle and keep a straight face?

FINAL THOUGHTS: Pieces Of A Man finds AZ still living out of The Firm's playbook, as this disc attempts to be a natural extension of that supergroup's album, but with less guest raps. However, The Firm's album sucked balls, and as a result, Pieces Of A Man sucks balls by proxy. Unlike Doe or Die, which, ideally, this disc should have been a sequel to, this sophomore effort sounds like Anthony Cruz was deliberately trying to move billions of units (see: the radio-friendly instrumentals, thanks to L.E.S. and the Trackmasters producing over half of the album) while refusing to clean up his act (the lyrics are as violent as they've always been): as everybody knows, there has to be some sort of compromise. Besides, the Mob doesn't want to hear its tales spelled out on pop radio. I wish that more rappers realized this back in the late 1990's.

BUY OR BURN? Personally, I wouldn't do either one, but if you must, a burn will suffice. But there's always going to be something else that captures your attention online, so you'll probably never get to this one anyway. And trust me, you're not missing anything.

BEST TRACKS: "SOSA"; "Whatever Happened (The Birth)"

-Max

RELATED POSTS:
AZ - Doe or Die

13 comments:

  1. "I believe I spun the disc once that night and promptly decided to never listen to the entire thing ever again for the rest of my life"

    That's so true...
    Only good song on the album is 'Whatever happened' featuring RZA.

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  2. wow. good writing. I actually do NOT want to hear this, and JUST inducted AZ into my top 10 MC's list...

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  3. You must find it tough to type with yr dick in yr ass - this album is serious, you are a joke

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  4. I found this in a used CD shop about five years ago. My sister loves AZ, so I picked it up for her as a gift. It was so shit she ACTUALLY GAVE IT BACK TO ME. That's pretty much all anyone needs to know about it, I'd have thought.

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  5. What about the cover Max? It looks like AZ is growing a smaller version of himself out of his head. What's he trying to say there?

    Actually, what's with his covers in general? Aside from the first one (no classic, but did the job) they're all crap.

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  6. the most felonious vocalist in the wide world of showbusinessNovember 12, 2008

    You pretty much nailed it. His next album 9 Lives suffered from the same misguided efforts to concoct a radio smash. For the AZ diehards (I know there are lots of them out there) you only need check out 8 tracks from Pieces of a Man. They are New Life, How Ya Livin', Love Is Love, The Payback, Sosa, Pieces of a (Black) Man, Last Dayz, and Whatever Happened (The Birth). That's not to say that all of the above are good songs; there's only 3 or 4 songs that I'd actually recommend you listen to. The 7 songs not listed above are so bad that even shameless Sosa promoters are unlikely to think of them as anything better than a complete embarrassment.

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  7. AnonymousJune 19, 2009

    damn i actually cried when i listened to this, then became depresssed after learning that AZ only had one Good Fucking Album, which one????
    Doe or Die duh!!!!

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  8. I really like dis album, the lyrics are great to me, Max can you review more AZ albums like Aziatic Or his EP S.O.S.A

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  9. Hey Can You Review Aziatic, I wanna See Your Take On it, Thanks.

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  10. how the fuck do you consider yourself a hip hop fan. worst reviews i've ever read

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  11. yeah its obvious lyrics arent a big thing for you when reviewing albums. Kind of sounds as if the review was written by a 17 year old teenage girl who likes Rick Ross and Lil Wayne. Makes me sad that lyrical excellence is lost on this generation.

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    Replies
    1. I love this album but to each his own.

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    2. Lyrics won't mean much if the beats are wack. Simple as that.

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