Feast your eyes on what the world envies. AZ, born Anthony Cruz, raised in Crooklyn, New York, is back. But you knew that. And if you didn’t, you knew he would be. The man who became a legend after dropping an infamous verse on the rap classic, “Life Is A Bitch,” (from Nas’ Illmatic), is releasing his buzz worthy project, NINE LIVES. After the renowned appearance with Nas, AZ was courted by various labels and released his debut, Do or Die in 1995. On the strength of his blazing single, “Sugar Hill,” the release sold over 250,000 copies. With a delivery that is both laconic and labored and subject matter that is grimy and wrenching, AZ quickly established himself as a hip-hop heavyweight, earning himself a place in the canon after one album. With his reputation firmly ensconced, AZ dropped a variety of memorable verses for artists like D’Angelo, Monica and Monifah.

But even his work with R&B artists never compromised his initial and lifelong focus-hardcore, unabridged hip-hop. With that understanding, AZ became a member of the pivotal rap super group, The Firm. With Nas, Foxy Brown, Cormega/Nature, AZ released the self-titled album in 1997. The album-produced by Dr. Dre-was platinum hit, though the expectations were even greater. “Some people actually say the album was not as big a hit as it could have been-but the album was certified platinum, many artists can’t even claim that,” says AZ definitively. After drama with The Firm camp, AZ went down the solo road once again, releasing Pieces of A Man in 1998. And now, finding a worthy home at Motown Records, AZ releases his most ambitious project to date, harking back to the witty one-liners and gritty beats of his debut. Even the various label drama he’s experienced has not changed his focus. “My life has always been hectic,” says AZ. “But I have tunnel vision when it comes to my music, I am always on course. I want the past to be the past. I got a brand new start now.” The streets are anxiously awaiting NINE LIVES and with good reason: some of the tracks here, appeared on his controversial, heavily bootlegged, independent album, S.O.S.A., which leaked to the streets in late 2000. “The response I got from the tracks on that EP were incredible,” says AZ.

“It let me know that people were ready to hear from me-people been waiting to hear from me, cause they know what I bring to the game. I’m still doing me and I’m still being felt.” The rat-a-tat-tat bounciness of “AZ’s Back,” featuring seamless production from Timbaland, brings vintage AZ with a twist. Rippin’ his detractors and vowing to take the game back from the “young boys,” AZ’s lyrical deftness and boisterous boasting is rump shakin’ ear candy. The Jersey-based Quad Money production crew keeps it gutter on “What Y’all Niggas Want,” with a pulsating baseline and deft scratching skills that perfectly complement AZ’s furious flow. “Since Sugar Hill/I got more realer/I got more iller/ More not giving a fuck/ More gorilla/ Chase me now and believe I kill ya,” he spits, followed by a scorching appearance from none other than Foxy Brown. “I only got guest appearances from the people that really complement my style,” says AZ. “And of course, I got artists I’ve always admired, like Joe.” Indeed, Joe brings his signature sound to “Everything is Everything,” a club-ready joint with tingly keys and a rhythmic chorus.

It ain’t hard to tell the realness on NINE LIVES. From his sinful soliloquy on sex, “How Many Wanna,” featuring Amil, to the symphonic and brassy “The Real,” featuring Beanie Sigel, AZ goes at the rap game the only way he knows how: his way. “At Night,” a bass heavy, hard hittin’ track, amplified with a subtle sample, is classic AZ with its rugged intensity and come-and-get-it subject matter. It perfectly complements the timelessness of joints like “What Your Day About,” reminiscent of his classic “Sugar Hill,” with its tingly keys and soulful baseline. “That’s two of my favorite cuts right there,” says AZ. “It’s honest and raw, which is what I am-all day everyday.” One of the album’s highlights, “Problems,” features a label mate of sorts: a vintage sample of Debarge’s 1984 hit, “Love Me In A Special Way.” The angst-ridden melody manages to maintain it’s edge while harking back to a day when the rap game was simpler and survival of the fittest was still the name of the game. “Good music is good music but rap is so different now,” opines AZ. “You got the Midwest, the dirty south. It started in NYC but now there are so many divisions, it’s hard to tell what’s real.” “I’ve seen a lot of people come and go in this game,” says AZ knowingly. “And guess what, I ain’t going nowhere. This is my life, I have no choice but to stay true to my music and to the streets.”

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