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One of the numerous thoughtful, literate gangsta rappers to emerge from New York during the mid-'90s, AZ never garnered the attention of peers like Nas and Jay Z. Instead, he saw his debut album, Doe or Die, become a critical favorite in late 1995 before his career suddenly went downhill after such modest and short-lived success. Critics and b-boys alike celebrated AZ and his debut album for a literate approach to the gangsta lifestyle. Like his aforementioned peers Nas and Jay Z, AZ not only brought intelligence to his rhymes but also an impressive flow and delivery that further set him apart from the flood of New York MCs fighting for survival in the crowded rap game. Unfortunately, despite Doe or Die's quiet success, AZ stumbled in successive years, finally scoring a new major-label relationship with Motown in the early 2000s.
Born in Brooklyn as Anthony Cruz, AZ first came to the greater rap community's attention in a big way after his stellar performance on Nas' "Life's a Bitch" in 1994. Given AZ's similarity to Nas and the overwhelming response to Nas' Illmatic album, it was just a matter of time before AZ would score a record deal, a feat he accomplished in 1995. The resulting debut album, Doe or Die, shook the New York hip-hop scene as Nas' Illmatic and Mobb Deep's Infamous had done shortly before it. Like those albums, Doe or Die reveled in the street life -- hustling for cash, peddling drugs, violent encounters, mandatory boasting, struggling daily just to maintain -- but took a literate and thoughtful approach to the often exploitative gangsta motifs. Furthermore, like Nas, AZ had Pete Rock crafting the beats, which won the young rapper instant credibility among the hip-hop community.

When word hit the street that AZ was an official member of the supergroup known as the Firm, his status only rose higher. Anchored by Nas, Foxy Brown, Nature, and AZ on the mics, with Dr. Dre and the Trackmasters on the beats, it would seem as if the group could do no wrong. The group's 1997 album ended up being a surprise failure, though, buried under ridiculous expectations and too much hype. But AZ's bad fortune didn't stop there. He returned a year later with his sophomore album, Pieces of a Man, an album that came and went relatively unnoticed and uncelebrated. For the next few years, AZ became a forgotten name. No longer with a major-label contract, he managed to release the little-heard S.O.S.A. record in 2000. It didn't sell many copies or resurrect his career but rather re-affirmed the fact that he was indeed a talented rapper whether the public and the industry wanted to acknowledge it or not.

Within a year's time, AZ secured a new major-label relationship with Motown, a label that had never had much, if any, success with rap artists. Still, the Brooklyn rapper wouldn't let the label's reputation hold him back, as he illustrated on 9 Lives, unofficially billed as his comeback album. Though lacking big-name production and employing a skimpy roster of guest rappers, the album did showcase AZ's lyrical prowess and his endurance, anchored by the sample-laced lead single "Problems." ~ Jason Birchmeier, All Music Guide
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