Monday, May 5, 2014

Revisiting AZ's "Pieces Of A Man"

This would actually mark the first time I've reviewed an AZ album, but before I get to his 1998 sophomore album, a few words if I may. As the sole guest star on Nas' classic "Illmatic," AZ had made a name for himself right out the gate with his memorable verse on "Life's A Bitch," which would ultimately lead to his debut album, 1995's "Doe Or Die" (also due for a revisit). While the album was quite excellent and classics such as "Sugar Hill" and "Gimme Yours" made a respectable amount of noise, especially the former, the album fell a little bit under the radar, and you can attribute that to it being released in the STACKED year of 1995. All things considered, that was best time to release the album, because it likely would've fell even more under the radar had it came out in 1996, another STACKED year. After "Doe Or Die," AZ's name was definitely out there, notably via an appearance in Jay-Z's "Dead Presidents" video and another (slightly) memorable guest appearance on Nas' "Affirmative Action." Speaking of "Affirmative Action," that would ultimately lead to "The Firm" album in 1997, which was covered recently on the blog, and that brings us to "Pieces Of A Man."

I remember anticipating this album a lot prior to its release, mostly because I was a fan of his since '94 and I was curious to see what he would bring after his debut. Also, the following song was supposed to be the album's first single, but for some reason it was not included on the album (my guess is probably due to a sample clearance issue):

So with all this being said, let's get to "Pieces Of A Man!"

 Release date: April 7, 1998

1. New Life (Album Intro)
Produced By: Goldfinga and Gucci Jones

"Play the game for my people stay in charge of your dreams/Keep your vision focused, get wise, and largen your cream"

"Clocks never stop, it's all a race to the top/Tryin' to freeze time, that's why I ice the face on my watch"

AZ was clearly heading in a new artistic direction, and this BRIEF but DOPE intro confirms it in a big way.  

2. I'm Known
 Produced By: Goldfinga and Gucci Jones

This is apply titled, fast paced, and dope. To this day, I still wish it was a little bit longer, but what we got is VERY good.
*4 out of 5*

3. How Ya Livin (Featuring Nas)
Produced By: LES
"Cash rules on my arm, I flash jewels and tattoos/You can look but don't touch, we bad news" -Nas

LES beautifully reworking of Glenn Jones' "Show Me" for AZ and Nas to flex their great chemistry over, and as you would expect, it's excellent all around, best song on the album. Think about this for a second: With hindsight being 20/20, I feel it would've been much better had we got received Nas & AZ collaboration album in 1997 instead of the Firm project. IMAGINE how tight that would've been, plus the timing would've been perfect for it.
*5 out of 5*

4. Trading Places
Produced By: Poke & Tone (Track Masters)

"Trading places, want a piece of the pie
Good guy, bad guy we each gotta die
It's all a game, some will make the Hall Of Fame
While others will die in vain tryin to front for a name"

Dope song over an equally dope beat provided by the hot (at the time) Track Masters.
*4 out of 5*

Manasia (Interlude)
Like you need to ask what type of interlude this is.

5. What's The Deal
Produced By: Poke & Tone (Track Masters)

This was a smooth joint, strictly for the ladies. Note to aspiring artists: This is a good example of HOW to make a song if you're looking to bring in female fans.
*4 out of 5*

Half-A-Mil (Interlude)
After blessing "Throw Ya Gunz" with AZ on the Firm album, his protege Half-A-Mil is showcased BRIEFLY on this interlude, leading into.....

6. Love Is Love (Featuring Nature and Half-A-Mil)
Produced By: Goldfinga and Gucci Jones, Co-Produced By: AZ

Pretty good collaboration right here. It also did not wear out its welcome hitting the 5 minute mark.
*4 out of 5*

7. The Pay Back
Produced By: Goldfinga and Gucci Jones

AZ brings out the gangster side, almost in a storytelling vibe. The samples from the "Hoodlum" movie, my 10th favorite movie of all time, were a good touch.
*4 out of 5*

8. Just Because
Produced By: LES

In an issue of The Source magazine in '98 (sometime between March and May), they reviewed this album (giving it a low 3 or 3.5 I believe) and when referring to this song, the reviewer stated that if it was played it the club, people would just "hold up the walls" and not really give it the time of day. While I wouldn't go that far, it's a decent song, aimed squarely at a spot on the radio which it didn't get.
*3 out of 5*

Produced By: Poke & Tone (Track Masters)

Everyone knew that AZ borrowed this nickname from the character of the same name in the "Scarface" movie, but he would later reveal that for him it stood for "Save Our Streets AZ." Either way, I couldn't wait to hear this one, largely because of the "connection" with my #1 favorite movie of all time, and it's dope of course.
*4 out of 5*

10. It's A Boy Thing
Produced By: Poke & Tone (Track Masters)

Appropriately titled, decent song, nothing more or less.
*3 out of 5*

11. Pieces Of A (Black) Man
Produced By: Poke & Tone (Track Masters)

This is not quite the introspective song you may think it is, which is no knock on it. As the title track, it's a standout on its own.
*4 out of 5*

12. Last Dayz (Featuring Monifah)
Produced By: Kenny Smoove, Co-Produced By: Darryl "88" Young

Life, in and outside of the struggle, was real back in '98 and that's certainly the case today in 2014. GOOD stuff here.
*4 out of 5*

13. Whatever Happened (The Birth)
Featuring and produced by The RZA

"Whatever happened to the realness from back in the past" 

Regarding hip hop in it's current state, I can ask this question over and over again, but other than that, AZ and RZA drop a few gems here, definitely another one of the album's highlights.
*4 out of 5*

14. Trial Of The Century
Additional Vocals By: Foxy Brown and Panama PI
Produced By: Nashiem Myrick

If this song was heading towards an epic or something, it really missed the mark (complete with a "shake your head" worthy hook). This ultimately sound like a song that was intended for the Firm album but got cut for obvious reasons.
*2.5 out of 5*

15. Betcha Don't Know
Additional Vocals By: Keanna Henson
Produced By: Tony Dofat

Much like "What's The Deal," this was a smooth track, not necessarily for the ladies this time around. It was a nice way to close the album.
*4 out of 5*

For starters, I almost went back and forth on the rating, but I settled in with a strong 4 star rating. It's a little more fast paced than "Doe Or Die," but overall it's not better. In my opinion, it's his most underrated album, and unfortunately it was highly slept on when it came out in 1998. Why? Well, certainly a lack of hype and promotion had its effects (as compared to his debut), plus "Hey AZ" was derailed as the album's first single and it really could've been as big as "Sugar Hill" if not bigger. He wouldn't release another album until 2001's "9 Lives," which is also likely due for a revisit. The excellent "Pieces Of A Man," much like the rest of his body of work, continuously confirms why he remains one of hip hop's most underrated MCs ever.

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