After a decade (and some change) of hype and false starts, AZ â€” often considered one of the most underrated lyricists in Hip Hop history â€” has finally released his ninth studio album, Doe Or Die II, 26 years removed from the original.
It doesnâ€™t have the Nas guest verse he guaranteed in a 2011 interview or some of the producers he was admittedly courting such as Dr. Dre, Kanye West, DJ Premier or even some of the contributors to his beloved debut like L.E.S. or DR Period. However, across the 13-song affair (released via his Quiet Money imprint), AZ is as sharp as ever, seemingly impervious to the cultural shifts and gimmicks.
For longtime fans of the MC, thereâ€™s a lot to love. Though not a direct follow-up to the lauded â€œSugar Hillâ€ B-side â€œRather Uniqueâ€ from the first DOD, he links with Pete Rock for â€œCheck Me Out,â€ with AZ bending his trademark wordplay around a gorgeous sample and interspersed PR ad-libs. Then thereâ€™s â€œRitual,â€ an Alchemist-produced cipher with Conway The Machine and mixtape-era Lil Wayne, with all three rappers proving why theyâ€™re so revered.
In many ways, Do Or Die II doesnâ€™t feel like a true-blue sequel to AZâ€™s classic debut album, which (alongside JAY-Zâ€™s Reasonable Doubt and Raekwonâ€™s Only Built 4 Cuban Linxâ€¦) popularized mafioso rap of the day. Aside from the Czarface-produced â€œFound My Nicheâ€ â€” a detailed account of his pre-Illmatic life before waking up to the reality of his trajectory and eventually dropping his iconic â€œLifeâ€™s A Bitchâ€ verse â€” the LP feels refined, almost removed from the themes of its predecessor.
The brooding aesthetic of songs such as â€œUncut Rawâ€ and â€œMoâ€™ Money, Moâ€™ Murder, Moâ€™ Homicideâ€ is replaced with a hardened OG perspective, like on the pair of Baby Paul-produced tracks â€œKeep It Realâ€ and â€œNever Enoughâ€ featuring Rick Ross. The latter shows off an unlikely pairing on paper but ends up being a top-tier highlight, with Ross matching the New York mafia aesthetic yet never showing up the godfather AZ.
The project does lack a clear-cut hit-single â€” a â€œSugar Hill,â€ if you will. There are also some noticeably lackluster choruses; Dave East sounds uninspired with his Biggie-interpolated hook on â€œBlow That S#%tâ€ and the absence of any hook at all on â€œDifferentâ€ feels slightly awkward.
There are also a few outliers; the Bink-produced â€œBulletproofâ€ and Rockwilder-produced â€œWhatâ€™s Goodâ€ featuring T-Pain are solid, yet nothing special. However, they do at least change the vibe and show AZ can still learn new tricks. Despite the risky songs being unremarkable, this does little to quell AZâ€™s potency on this project, which holds more gems than Zambiaâ€™s Kagem Emerald Mine.
Ultimately, trying to recreate the magic of his debut would feel forced this far removed from the moment in time â€” not unlike Nas attempting to recreate Illmatic. Rather, â€œGrown man elegance mixed with ghetto allureâ€ as he raps on â€œCheck Me Outâ€ is the most accurate description of this project.
Do Or Die II meets the expectations of the people who grew up with AZâ€™s music and understand his importance in Hip Hop, though it doesnâ€™t quite elevate the MC or show any new layers. But with many legacy rappers either trying too hard to fit into the times, or resting on nostalgic laurels, AZ finds a way to stick to his guns without sounding dated.
AZâ€™s latest is what growing gracefully in Hip Hop looks and sounds like, sticking to his strengths without sounding out of touch, a lesson many other Golden Age rappers could take to heart.
I know a lot of you donâ€™t care and are always gonna ride with whoever is the most popular but if you wanna hear solid music listen to AZ new albumâ€¦Doe or Die II ?
â€” Dex G??â€â™‚ï¸ (@dex_the_best) September 16, 2021
AZ on Doe or Die II pic.twitter.com/8wKW99tanI
â€” Maliik (@NFLMaliik) September 14, 2021
Nah Broâ€¦AZ â€“ â€œDOE OR DIE IIâ€ just released last weekâ€¦itâ€™s THE BEST album of the year so far, and I think about it EVERY DAY!!!
â€” SleepingTigerStyle (@BHornet7) September 14, 2021