az.jpgDespite always droppin’ intellectually charged street parables, AZ has yet to garner any significant commercial success. Long respected for the lyrical work he’s put in over the years, the hip-hop veteran continues on the independent grind with his sixth studio album, The Format. The layout is familiar—dense couplets and soulful soundbeds—this go round, which has its merits, but also plenty of liabilities.

On the resounding opening track, “I Am the Truth,” AZ explains his mission to save the streets. Over regal horns and swelling strings, courtesy of M.O.P.’s Lil’ Fame, he spits, “Soul music, so intense, so live/It’s no excuses, y’all been so deprived.” Then the usually relaxed Sosa gets amped for “Sit ’Em Back Slow,” his raucous collabo with the Mash Out Posse that’s supported by a diced-up sample of Rick James’ “Mary Jane.” The disc’s climax, however, comes courtesy of the Little Brother–guested “Rise & Fall,” which features a particularly acute verse from Phonte.

The album’s engine stalls from there. Enlisting Lil’ Fame to score a faux-pop club record sounds like a bad enough idea, but adding Dipset’s Jha Jha to the mix makes the pandering “Doing That” almost unbearable. AZ’s overreliance on beats that are framed around drowsy vocal samples is also a factor. Emile’s basic backdrops for “Get High” and “Game of Life” lead to virtually indistinguishable songs, low on replay value.

After over a decade in the game, AZ should know what grooves suit his stocky flow and how to adapt to new ones, but The Format’s rigid consistency leads to its complacency. The Brooklyn native is better served when challenged by atypical production, as on the title track, where DJ Premier’s intense four-beat synth collage inspires lines like, “Built my fame, spilt my pain/Politickin’ daily, still trying to milk the game.” Maybe AZ should’ve checked the expiration date on this homogenous mix, before it sours his legacy further. —ALVIN BLANCO
87cover.jpgRead the rest of XXL’s Critical Beatdown review section in the
December 2006 issue (#87)