AZ - AWOL

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He may not be the most recognizable or financially successful figure in rap, but an emcee's status should depend on skill and not salary.

Anthony Cruz has been on the grind for a long time. In the realism of life in actuality, his status has been respected since he came into the game. Like so many others, this has not translated into great album sales. Although he's always been known and touted by many as a great lyricist, people are still sleeping on him. Who knows why? Who knows if this album will change things? The questions swirling AZ are complicated and intriguing, but that's no different from his rhymes.

A.W.O.L. has hit the streets like thunder. Sure, this once again did not indicate huge Soundscan numbers, but it made an impact on an underground level. Much like most of his albums, this one is showered with complex rhyme patterns and fresh flows. Lyrically, his sharpness has not been dulled by the years. From the first to the last track, Cruz rhymes with an elegant flair, flexing multi-syllable rhyme schemes and walking a thin rope between intelligence and braggadocios bravado. He keeps it gangsta but never senseless, and this allows for a deeper view of a writer from the streets.

On "So Sincere," A can rhyme about his expensive clothing, his perseverance, strength, longevity, his skills with the ladies and get introspective all in one verse. That's not all. As a story-teller, Cruz shows he's praiseworthy on tracks like "Never Change" and the creatively insightful "Bedtime Story." The latter tracks recounts his career's ups and downs as if it is being told to his son before bed. We are taken into the gritty NY subway by the legendary DJ Premier on "The Come Up." Here, AZ shows he can flaunt his rhyme skills over a trademark Premier beat with finesse.

Right off the bat, we see a very soul-inspired Hip-Hop album. While this can get redundant, AZ manages to ride each beat rather uniquely. "Never Change." continues the soulful feeling, but then you hear the sirens of "New York," and you know it's about to go in a new direction. Rae and Ghostface lend their voices to the track and all three emcees show different sides of New York. "Can't Stop" brings us back to the sped up vocal sample but adds enough deep and thoughtful lyrics, that you can't help but fall in love with the track. Sadly, the same cannot be said for "Still Alive." While some emcees sound great over club-beats, it's tough to hear AZ over something like this. Sure, his rhymes are still well-crafted, but the flow sounds a bit off over this annoying beat. This mediocre attempt for a club song is explained with "I'm just tryin' to do G-Unit numbers." Here, the gamble didn't pay off and actually hurts the consistency of the LP. We are then given an Audio 2-inspired "AZ's Chillin'" and it's refreshing to hear some old school Hip-Hop.

No matter how you cut it, the man is consistent. While the album has some flaws, they are easy to look past because of the gems within almost every track. AZ's rhymes are just as potent as ever, and the beats are solid throughout. Dropping intelligence over street-based topics and grimey beats, AZ proves to be a rapper's rapper, a trapper's rapper and a critic's rapper all in one. While some are resting in peace and others are sitting in San Quentin, he has pretty much solidified his place in the Hip-Hop books with consistency and sheer skill. Dropping knowledge, but never being preachy, AZ creates a balance that not many have. He may not be the most recognizable or financially successful figure in rap, but an emcee's status should depend on skill and not salary.

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