Z is a prodigal talent. His verse on “Life’s a Bitch” gave him a shot at the spotlight, but he’s had a few underwhelming albums that always seemed a notch below the best rap at the time. A.W.O.L. doesn’t break any new ground, but it is consistent, good, and strong. And in 2005 that means more than it did in 1995 or with the Firm, or in ’98 or 2000 when he dropped his worst album, or even in 2002 when he released his best. It means that while New York shudders, collapsing under the weight of its position in the center of rap history, as the streets-up motion of grassroots hip-hop swirls and surges past the aging metropolis, his talent is capturing that perfect glance into another time and place.
And lately I’ve begun to understand that time and place better than ever before. Rap nerds fetishize those overwritten pencil-scratch-on-looseleaf-paper-verses, packed with internal rhymes, bars that stretch past the ledger marks, cigarette exhalations vibrating with rumors and references, detailed crime-noir snapshots that became a New York lyricists’ trademark. The paranoia from alleycats banging garbage can covers, strangers in hoodies scraping timberlands against the concrete, drug deals on rain-splotched basketball courts. MCs like Nas, Rakim, Cormega, and especially AZ’s spiritual and stylistic forefather, Kool G Rap, used to inhale weed smoke and exhale novels, precisely articulated treatises on the state of things as seen through, say, a security camera’s eye, dispassionate yet not detached, sadness and anger underlying their gray-washed observations.
These rappers are hardly unheralded in the canon, and many call them overrated. But these days I’m more of the mind that they are incorrectly rated. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of the most fruitful and interesting periods in rap history, was the beginning of this sound, the kind that could only have arisen in gothic east-coast environs: Bushwick, Brownsville, Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, Queensbridge.
So this album is exciting because that lineage has never seemed more dead. G-Unit, for all its strengths and weaknesses, has rejected it, mixing candy-shop pop with sing-song gangsta. Dipset too, Cam dropping the Children of the Corn hardcore for purple haze avant-garde. Slice the rest of the city into the wait-til-the-album-drops mixtape ghetto of Just Blaze jockers (Papoose, Saigon), Fat Joe fans, and the arrival of reggaeton? NYC has lost that unique New York state of mind, left the style toe-tagged and bagged.
So we have AZ’s best track, “City of Gods,” produced by reformed ghetto-technician Disco D, a soul track threaded with love and nostalgia, the sound of remembering the 1980s, like Kool G Rap’s “Fast Life” or Nas using the Wildstyle theme for the intro to Illmatic, the kind of angelic production that produces ripples in the historical pond of collective nostalgia. You’ll feel it too.
As for the rest: history lies in the sewer just beneath this album’s pavement. The DJ Premier produced first single “The Come Up” which sounds exactly like you expect, thank God, with chopped strings, hard drums, predictably comfortable. “AZ’s Chillin” is “Top Billin” and “Tipsy” with a side of “The Place Where We Dwell.” Then there’s a track called “New York” with Rae and Ghost rehashing classic New York tough talk, an episode of Law & Order in fast forward, drama ripped from the headlines of allhiphop.com!
But this all makes it sound like the album is average or conservative or boring, and it’s not! The reason it’s not is the same reason it’s an AZ album and not a Raekwon album or a Nas album in 2005. AZ shines now because he sounds young—an entirely unpretentious narrator who relates things as he sees them, a snapshot of “then” by someone who has the weight of geographic history but no personal history, no vaunted mythic career with which to compete. He succeeds, yes, because the bar is low, but success is success. For ten-plus years he’s sprayed rapid-fire tales of ghetto crime drama and he lets you know that New York lyrical tradition was never overrated, it was merely mis-rated. New York rap isn’t about historical narrative, it’s about style, and when we started worshiping at the alter of Illmatic the weight of expectation shifted, and I am convinced that we never really got why this style was so fucking good in the first place.
Reviewed by: David Drake
Reviewed on: 2005-11-23