Even though Anthony Cruz's sophomore effort, Pieces Of A Man, contained guest appearances from his fellow members of rap supergroup The Firm (Nas, Foxy Brown, and Nature) and production from established hitmakers The Trackmasters and, just to pull in the underground audience, Nashiem Myrick and The RZA, it underperformed at the box office. One of the theories as to why it tanked has to do with the project's teaser single, "Hey AZ", an SWV-featured radio-friendly jam that was a minor hit, but somehow failed to make the actual proper album (possibly due to sample clearance issues). Personally, I'm thinking that nobody bought the album because it kind of fucking sucked.
Either way, AZ's label, Noo Trybe, dropped him shortly after they dropped Pieces Of A Man.
Between 1998 and 2000, AZ was essentially homeless, and he took to panhandling in order to earn enough money to pay for food, shelter, and weed. He was supported throughout this trying time by the royalties he earned off of sales from his first album, Doe Or Die, and his guest appearance on Nasir's Illmatic that still sells copies to this day. But without a current album to promote, his career was dead in the water. AZ was at risk of floating down the river into hip hop irrelevancy, just like so much driftwood.
Refusing to admit defeat, though, he fought back by recording and releasing a promo-only album for the "streets" entitled S.O.S.A. (Save Our Streets AZ). Curious title aside, this album was intended to act as a teaser for an eventual album release, while also doubling as a demo tape for AZ to shop around to interested parties. (One of those parties, Motown Records, took the bait, and released his third album, 9 Lives, in 2001, which contained many of these same tracks in a more polished form.)
S.O.S.A. (Save Our Streets AZ) is admirable in that it was made specifically to appease the fans who stuck by his side through all of his label issues. Unfortunately, those fans didn't consist of enough people that could have actually helped with said problems by purchasing Pieces Of A Man, but I digress. Besides, as I mentioned before, Pieces Of A Man sucked. With this project, AZ moved into a new phase in his career, that of an underground artist with a cult following that wrote his music specifically for that audience, as opposed to actively trying to sell millions of records, although that would probably be nice, too.
Anthony claims to be looking to the future (because there's “more money” out there for him to get, or some other abstract shit), but he's clearly living in the past, letting the beat to Nasir's “Life's A Bitch” (which featured the debut appearance of our host) play in a closed loop in the background while he does a fairly shitty job encouraging listeners to continue beyond the intro. (The sound bite from The Notorious B.I.G. doesn't really help, either.) AZ gives some shout-outs to artists that have passed on, though, so that was awfully nice of him.
2. I DON'T GIVE A FUCK NOW
This was the street single, I believe. (How an album that is essentially a glorified demo tape/audition reel for other labels can even have a “single” is a discussion for another day.) AZ tackles Chop D.I.E.S.E.L.'s DJ Premier imitation in an abrasive manner, as is to be expected when the song's called “I Don't Give A Fuck Now”. This was still pretty entertaining today, mainly because AZ would probably sound pretty fucking good over an actual Primo concoction. However, the fact that Nas sound bites are almost exclusively used as the “chorus” (save for the one that gives the track its title) is a bit unsettling, as though AZ refuses to move on with his life.
Hilariously inappropriate: when the DeBarge sample from “All This Love” (which is used throughout the song) sings about having some problems, AZ responds to no one in particular, “You got bitch n----z, right?”, as if he's having the most natural conversation in the history of recorded communication. This wasn't the best way to hold on to the audience that may have liked the previous song: Anthony sounds corny, and the sample, though chopped into submission by producer Chop D.I.E.S.E.L., remains too dominant to allow the track to actually breathe.
4. BODIES GOTTA GET CAUGHT
My suspension of disbelief is shot to hell, as AZ hasn't sold enough records to have the liquid cash necessary to “catch” some “bodies” and keep them hidden from the feds. The hook also sounded like ass. No, I mean literally: I'm pretty sure Anthony invited a donkey into the studio to bray a few bars into the microphone before it accidentally ate it. In conclusion, I miss Nas. Do you think he still answers AZ's instant messages and Facebook invites?
5. LET US TOAST
The beat was alright, and Anthony's flow was decent enough, but this sounds too much like an outtake from Doe Or Die to take seriously. Actually, that's the problem I have with AZ in general: he seems to believe that he was a fully developed artist when “Life's A Bitch” dropped, and has failed to grow and develop as a rapper since then. Nobody really wants to hear someone rhyme the exact same way throughout their entire career: that criticism is something that hip hop heads shout out loud when they simply hate your new direction. If you just get better, then your feedback would inform you as such. Moving it along...
6. PLATINUM BARS
Just like with “Uncut Raw” on Doe Or Die and “SOSA” on Pieces Of A Man, Anthony blesses listeners with a quick one-verse wonder. Unlike his earlier two attempts, though, “Platinum Bars” fucking sucks. The beat is all lazy bombast without any dramatic flair, and AZ sounds bored reciting his own lyrics. Yes, this is short (it clocks in at less than a minute), but it's still too long to be considered tolerable.
7. LOVE ME IN YOUR SPECIAL WAY
Same complaint as on “Let Us Toast”, but I didn't mind it as much this time around. DR Period's instrumental doesn't amount to much at first, but once the scratched-in R&B sample works its way into the chorus, one realizes that this is truly the only beat that could work for this song. Also, Anthony spits three verses that help recall why his sophomore effort was so highly anticipated in the first place.
8. THAT'S REAL (FEAT. BEANIE SIGEL)
A guest appearance from an artist who is now relatively lost in the industry after his much more famous friend has seemingly abandoned him, not unlike the experience of our host? Why the fuck not? (As far as I know, though, AZ isn't going around talking shit about God's Son every chance he gets.) Beans sounds almost entirely different than he normally does: maybe the studio was cold that day and he caught a bug. AZ and Sigel aren't unnatural collaborators or anything, but I spent this entire song wondering why this song wasn't better than it was, and then wondered exactly why I believed that it could have ever been better in the first place.
9. ANIMAL SKIT - YOU AIN'T FROM BROOKLYN (FEAT. ANIMAL)
Why would AZ give another artist a chance to shine on what is supposed to be his own audition reel? Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? We will never know the answer to these questions. Maybe he was just trying to do his friend ? A solid. However, Anthony will be pissed to discover that Animal fucking destroys him on his own album, even without the aid of anything as confining as a “beat”. It wasn't a great performance, but I liked Animal's energetic verse more than everything presented by AZ thus far. And there's only one song left on (title), so I'm guessing that my opinion won't change much.
10. I B'S LIKE THAT (FEAT. ANIMAL)
This ended up being another generic love-slash-sex rap meant for mainstream consumption, but the title tricks listeners into thinking otherwise...at least until the patently dull instrumental kicks in. After his rousing performance on the previous skit, though, it is kind of funny to hear Animal fall into such generic hip hop trappings. He still sounds better than AZ, who seems to have mentally checked out after “I Don't Give A Fuck Now”, his new personal theme song, but even he fails to keeps folks interested in his collection of bad puns, awful metaphors, pop culture references, and random violent threats that constitute your typical rap verse. Oh well, at least this is finally over.
SHOULD YOU TRACK IT DOWN: Nah. S.O.S.A. (Save Our Streets AZ) was always intended as one of those “album before the album” projects, but there isn't much on here that would give any of AZ's fans hope that the eventual follow-up would be anything worth listening to. (And yet, this CD somehow got Anthony signed to Motown. Yeah, I can't figure that out, either.) As I mentioned in the write-up itself, AZ hasn't progressed much beyond his Doe Or Die days, and while some of you two may appreciate his sticking to the script, this calculated move virtually guarantees that he won't be gaining any new fans anytime soon. It doesn't help that S.O.S.A. (Save Our Streets AZ) attempts to use its lack of focus as a benefit rather than a detriment, skipping around as a way of showcasing Anthony's overall range; I ended up not giving a fuck either way. Is it a bold and career-defining move that AZ chose to cede a skit and a verse to an unknown artist just so he could shine, or is it a terrible and career-defining move that AZ is both outshined and outclassed by said unknown artist? Who cares? Odds are, you two won't want to listen to this shit anyway. Nor should you: don't let the presence of a couple of decent tracks below cloud your judgment. (In fact, I'll make this extremely easy for you two: the two best songs, “I Don't Give A Fuck Now” and “Love Me In Your Special Way”, also appear on AZ's Motown Records debut. There! Problem solved.)