When Anthony Cruz found himself homeless (music industry-wise, anyway) after releasing his sophomore effort, Pieces Of A Man, to indifferent criticisms and even more apathetic sales figures, he did what any hustler would do: he regrouped and fought back. After the mandatory ten-day wailing period, in which he blamed everybody but himself for his failures, AZ recorded a quickie project for the “streets”, S.O.S.A. (Save Our Streets AZ), that was intended to keep his name in the national hip hop conversation while slyly doubling as his resume for any future employer. Motown Records, the historic home of such acts as the Jackson 5, The Supremes, and even Boyz II Men, somehow took the bait, and signed him almost immediately; in return, AZ provided them with the masters for his third proper album, 9 Lives.
The title 9 Lives was supposed to be a commentary on how AZ believed himself to be cat-like, rebounding without missing a step after the commercial failure of his last project. Considering the man had only suffered one major loss in his battle with the music industry at this point in his career (his debut, Doe Or Die, was a minor hit, in that everybody knows what it is but almost nobody seems to actually own a copy), the title felt a bit premature: a quick glimpse into the crystal ball that is Wikipedia reveals that his days at Motown were also numbered (he lasted for about two albums), so perhaps it was more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than it was a sarcastic look at his own life. Either way, 9 Lives sold zero copies, as could be expected when the label's marketing team isn't exactly familiar with exactly what they're working with.
9 Lives consisted of a handful of tracks from S.O.S.A. (Save Our Streets AZ), newly remastered but with slightly altered titles, and some newer material that aped Pieces Of A Man in their overall content and glossy quality. Although AZ's introduction to the rap game was on the shoulders of his friend Nasir Jones (on Illmatic's “Life's A Bitch”), his own career trajectory has followed a materialistic path: even though his rhymes would seem to suggest those of a jaded gangster type who is tired of his way of life but is unable to clearly see a way out, the music those rhymes are set to almost exclusively promote a radio-friendly party lifestyle (which was also one of the many downfalls of the side project from rap supergroup The Firm, which consisted of AZ alongside Nas, Foxy Brown, and
Cormega Nature). Those two worlds hardly ever mix in a manner that would taste good, so, unsurprisingly, AZ comes across as a guy who doesn't know who his audience is supposed to be.
Anthony attempts to get back into the good graces of hip hop heads by turning this rap album intro into a quick verse. Unfortunately for him, the Big Shy beat sounds like a Xerox of a Xerox of something that could have ended up on The Firm: The Album (this is a bad thing, kids), and his bars hold no resonance whatsoever: they evaporate from your consciousness even before they leave our host's mouth. Groan.
2. WHAT CHA DAY ABOUT (FEAT. ALI VEGAS)
9 Lives kicks off with a poor Trackmasters impersonation (provided by producer Qu'ran Goodman), over which AZ attempts to reclaim the throne he never actually had by reminding the listener that his life is much better than yours (mostly because he appeared on Illmatic, mind you). The question asked within the title is used as yet another way to separate himself from the masses, but he then expects those same masses to buy his album when he drops it. Great job alienating your potential audience, Anthony. Especially since everyone already knows that you're not quite as successful as you say you are.
3. I DON'T GIVE A FUCK
This was the same song as S.O.S.A. (Save Our Streets AZ)'s “I Don't Give A Fuck Now”, except now without any sense of time specificity: AZ now just doesn't give a fuck, period.
4. AT NIGHT
With the help of producer Chop D.I.E.S.E.L., AZ attempts to bridge the gap between “What Cha Day About” and “I Don't Give A Fuck”, ending up with a mixture that uses the worst elements of both tracks and turns them into an awful-tasting confection that means very little to the general hip hip landscape. Even still, Anthony believes that the majority of his lyrics will fly right over the heads of most of the audience. Nah, man, you have that wrong: the audience (whatever's left of them, anyway) will clearly understand what you mean. They just won't give a fuck now.
5. AZ'S BACK
Anthony takes a risk, tries out a double-time flow over a Southern-tinged Tank instrumental, and manages to sound decent enough merely by not resorting to his usual braggadocio. This type of flow suits him just as well as a 4-year old child wearing one of his father's suits, though, so even without the added stigma embarrassing himself would have caused, “AZ's Back” is still laughable at best. I've always wondered why AZ was so focused on appealing to a mainstream crowd so early on in his career: his crime narratives would seem to be a bit too polarizing for a general audience to accept. Also, the hook on here was fucking terrible. Some ideas are better left in the mind of the artist in question.
This is the same song that first appeared on S.O.S.A. (Save Our Streets AZ).
7. EVERYTHING'S EVERYTHING (FEAT. JOE)
AZ was never a successful commercial artist. Doe Or Die didn't sell all that well, and his work with The Firm was laughable at best. So why does AZ believe that he is destined to have the same level of success as, say, Nas (who isn't really a sure thing anymore, either) or Jay-Z (who is on an entirely different plane of existence, even if his name sounds similar to that of our host)? Collaborations with R&B stalwart Joe aren't doing you any favors, Anthony: you come across as a rapper who decided long ago that money is all that matters, artistic integrity be damned. It wasn't Motown that imposed this radio-friendly requirement on 9 Lives: Pieces Of A Man sounded this glossy, too. Bleh.
8. THAT'S REAL (FEAT. BEANIE SIGEL)
Please refer to my notes from “Problems”.
9. WHAT Y'ALL N----S WANT (FEAT. FOXY BROWN)
AZ and his invited guest Inga Marchand exhibit so little chemistry on this godawful song that it's a mystery how they share the same planet, which makes the fact that this is technically a mini-reunion between two members of The Firm completely bewildering. Chop D.I.E.S.E.L.'s beat is fucking garbage, AZ sounds awkward as hell when he tries to recite his lines, and Foxy Brown, no longer being guided by the hand of either Jay-Z or Nas, comes across as a Lil' Kim clone who believes that reciting the Notorious B.I.G.-esque “uh” multiple times throughout her verse makes her sound (a) hardcore and (b) sexy, but in reality it helps her come across as (c) mannish and (d) retarded. I think I speak for the universe when I say that what y'all n----z want from AZ is a good fucking song. Pretty please?
10. LET'S TOAST
Same track from the previous project, except it was entitled “Let Us Toast” before. I prefer the earlier title, as it sounded much more formal, as though it was a black tie affair.
11. HOW MANY WANNA (FEAT. AMIL)
AZ does his best impression of a hedonistic Shawn Carter song, managing to somehow make the act of fucking sound even more appalling than Kanye West does on any given verse. He even somehow convinced Jay-Z's former colleague Amil to lend some assistance, which probably wasn't all that difficult, since her cashier shift at Target ended at seven that evening. AZ really has no clue what crowd he should be aiming for, and this song is the aural equivalent of his Newt Gingrich-level flip-flopping. What the fuck was this shit, man?
12. LOVE ME
Same track from the previous project, except it was entitled “Love Me In Your Special Way”. Maybe Motown charged by the word?
13. QUIET MONEY TBS (FEAT. QUIET MONEY)
Anthony lends this goofily-named track its opening verse, but quickly leaves the building to go get some soup, leaving the rest of his weed carriers with the pressure inherent with introducing the posse Quiet Money to the rest of the world. Obviously, this statement didn't end up being a very effective one, since you don't have a fucking clue as to what I'm talking about today: while the generic instrumental plays a role in that collective amnesia, the uncredited day players (which includes Animal, who stole the show on S.O.S.A. (Save Our Streets AZ), along with two others: I'm pretty sure the late Half-A-Mil is among them, but I can't place the last guy, as that's how badly they all blend together) all drop the ball with their interchangeable verses and lack of charisma behind the mic. Although AZ doesn't really charm listeners behind the mic either, so maybe they did actually hook up with the right man. Regardless, this shit sucked kangaroo penis. This was one of the blandest posse cuts I've ever heard: nobody appears to be excited to simply be there.
Yay! We're done!
FINAL THOUGHTS: AZ is, ultimately, an also-ran who lucked into an early friendship with one of the biggest artists in hip hop, but no matter how hard he tries, he will never actually be Nas, and it would be best if he gave up this particular course of action as soon as possible. His third proper album, 9 Lives, burns through about eight of them fairly quickly, as our host is unable to decide who his audience is supposed to be, and as a result, he ends up appealing to absolutely nobody. The (mostly shitty) production is too polished to be considered grimy, but his materialistic lyrics focus more on the streets than on any sort of enjoyment a large amount of money could bring: by trying to have it both ways, he damns his rap career to an eternal hell, one which he has yet to fully escape from. If 9 Lives is really what AZ thought would work after dropping S.O.S.A. (Save Our Streets AZ) and the commercial flop Pieces Of A Man, then he was not only sorely mistaken, he was also fucking delusional. 9 Lives is most definitely one of the most boring albums I've ever listened to for this blog.
BUY OR BURN? You should just avoid 9 Lives entirely. To save yourself the trouble, you see.
BEST TRACKS: “I Don't Give A Fuck”