It all started for AZ back in 1994 when he appeared on Nas' hit song, "Life's a Bitch," off the classic Illmatic. From that point on, the hype for AZ built, leading up to one of the more anticipated debut albums of the 90s: Doe or Die.
Similar in style to Nas, AZ possesses a very deliberate and consistent flow, and even sounds a bit like his mentor. He helped facilitate the branch of hip-hop known as mafioso rap, a sub-genre that the Wu-Tang Clan has mastered (see: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...), and, whenever he paired up with Nas on a song, comprised one of the deadliest duos in hip-hop history, as the two never failed to seamlessly mesh together on a track.
Of course, AZ was also part of the gigantic failure that was "The Firm," a group consisting of the aforementioned AZ and Nas plus Nature and Foxy Brown. Cormega was originally a member instead of Nature, but internal beef forced him out. However, that's a story for another day, as this review is not about The Firm but about AZ's classic debut.
Backed by production from greats like Pete Rock and L.E.S., Doe or Die turned out to be a 90s masterpiece and, perhaps, one of the most overlooked rap albums ever.
1. Uncut Raw
The album kicks off with a dark, grimy beat produced by Loose. AZ immediately paints a picture of what Doe or Die is going to be about, rapping: "Fuck police and no remorse for the beasts, that's lost on the streets, that pistol-whip a priest for a crosspiece." Nice start.
2. Gimme Yours
Ah, Pete Rock. "Gimme Yours" consists of another eerie beat, as Pete Rock makes a spooky piano riff the center of attention. "Fuck keepin' my distance, 'cause being poor produced persistence," raps AZ in his first verse. Nas is featured on this track, but all he does is aid AZ on the hook.
3. Ho Happy Jackie
This Buckwild-produced joint possesses one of the best beats on Doe or Die, broadcasting an extremely soulful feel, as AZ talks about a, um, "loose" female who is a gold-digger and parades herself around the city for...well, I'm sure you can guess. Honestly, though, I didn't even pay much attention to the lyrics, as Buckwild's beat just put me in another dimension. AZ's flow on this is great, by the way.
4. Rather Unique
The second and final Pete Rock track on Doe or Die turns out to be the strongest cut on the album, and that really shouldn't come as much of a surprise. "Far from feeble, I leave your nostrils hard to breathe through, 'cause my cerebrals are more of a higher plane than the Hebrews, my mic devotion, brings out my deepest emotions, overdosing wannabes boasting, sending them through convulsions," raps AZ. The beat has P.R. written all over it, being a smooth head-nodder that has a very good chance of putting you to sleep. "Rather Unique" really sounds like it belongs on Illmatic; it's that good.
5. I Feel For You
"I Feel For You" represents a change of pace on Doe or Die, as this Amar Pep-produced beat is fast-paced, as opposed to the first four crawling tracks. This is decent, but AZ sounds much better over slower productions. Also, the constant "hmmm" vocal sample on this can become irritating after a while.
6. Sugar Hill
This was the album's biggest hit, and it's easy to see why, as "Sugar Hill" is easily the most radio-friendly cut on Doe or Die, similar in feel to The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy." This L.E.S.-produced cut is better, though, in my opinion, primarily because I like the beat more. AZ's content isn't exactly mind-blowing, as he basically talks about how well he can live if he makes enough money drug-dealing. Yeah; it's definitely been done before. Nevertheless, this is a good record.
7. Mo Money, Mo Murder (Homicide)
I have to say I'm pretty surprised that this is the only song on the entire album where Nas raps a verse, but kudos to AZ for not leaning on his mentor like many other rappers do/would. Many consider this to be the best cut on Doe or Die, and although I prefer "Rather Unique," it's hard to argue with that statement, as "Mo Money, Mo Murder (Homicide)" exemplifies mafioso rap at its finest. Nas and AZ trade verses about the harshness of the streets back and forth throughout the five-minute, thirteen-second song (it's actually six minutes and thirty-two seconds long officially, but after the 5:13 mark, AZ launches into a short song called "Born Alone, Die Alone" that spans for the remainder of the track) over a slow, fairly suspenseful production by DR Period (whom I've never heard from again after this record).
8. Doe or Die
Man, Doe or Die certainly contains a variety of different-sounding beats, as the album's title track (produced by N.O. Joe) sounds like something Johnny J would have produced for 2Pac on All Eyez On Me. "I gotta look like Tevin Campbell, but still I gamble, hustle, and scramble 'cause money is muscles in this damn zoo," spits AZ, once again describing the streets of New York. The hook is pretty throwaway, as it merely consists of AZ saying "it's like a jungle sometimes" three times followed by "the weed smoke makes me wonder, how I keep from goin' under." Decent, relaxing record overall.
9. We Can't Win
Well, it's pretty clear that Amar Pep is the weak link on the album in terms of production, as his first beat ("I Feel For You") didn't suit AZ at all, and this one is just incredibly boring.
10. Your World Don't Stop
This is one of my favorite tracks on Doe or Die. The beat, co-produced by Spunk Biggs and Ski, is damn good, and AZ raps some deep lines: "Plus spiritual pain can bring forth physical reign, and without knowledge of self how else can a criminal change?" The cut is about life behind bars and the strife that the inmates go through both in and out of prison.
11. Sugar Hill (Remix)
The lyrics on here are exactly the same as the original, but L.E.S. changes up the beat. This one knocks, too, but I like the original a bit better.
Doe or Die is a classic; no two ways about it. AZ displays a remarkable ability to paint a realistic picture of the streets of New York much like Raekwon does on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... and Mobb Deep do on The Infamous, and the production on the album is very, very good.
Of course, you will have those doubters who say that an album centered on one topic the entire time can become boring, but when it is done as effectively as Doe or Die, that criticism does not apply. Also, this album is only 11 tracks long, so critics don't really have much room to cast such judgments, anyway.
While AZ may not be on the same level as Nas in terms of pure lyrical and storytelling ability (and not many are), he is certainly a step ahead of most of the rest of the competition, demonstrating outstanding confidence and swagger behind the mic and the ability to keep the listener interested throughout.
I don't really have much else to say but to go and grab this. If you liked Illmatic, The Infamous, and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... (and honestly, who didn't?), then chances are you will really dig Doe or Die.
TOP FIVE TRACKS
1. Rather Unique
2. Ho Happy Jackie
3. Your World Don't Stop
4. Sugar Hill
5. Mo Money, Mo Murder (Homicide)
We Can't Win (just because of the beat)