Known for his contemplative, intelligent lyrics, AZ came out of the mid-1990s New York rap scene that produced rap superstars Nas and Jay-Z. AZ distinguished himself from his colleagues with his smart raps and smooth, polished style, first attracting attention for a track called “Life’s a Bi***” on Nas’s album Illmatic. The EMI label signed AZ on the strength of this rap, and AZ produced his first solo album, Doe or Die, in 1995. Riding on the success of the single “Sugar Hill,” the album sold a quarter-million copies, establishing AZ as a contender on the national rap scene. In 2003 AZ received a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for “The Essence,” a collaboration with Nas from his Aziatic album.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Anthony Cruz was dubbed Aziatic, which became AZ for short. Growing up in the same Brooklyn housing project as rappers Nas, Mobb Deep, and Mic Geronimo, AZ first gained attention as a rapper for “Life’s a Bi***,” a single from Nas’s 1994 album Illmatic. The album eventually sold more than a million copies, bringing AZ favorable attention.
His work on Illmatic drew the EMI record label’s attention; they took the unusual step of signing him to a contract without requiring a demo first. AZ cut his first album, Doe or Die, for EMI in 1995. It earned critical acclaim and sold a respectable 250,000 copies, propelled in part by the hit single “Sugar Hill,” which landed on the Billboard R&B, rap, and pop charts.
Like his fellow rappers from the projects, AZ’s songs were about life in rough neighborhoods and his efforts to escape. Lyrics on his first album told of street violence, drug deals, and hustles for money, but, according to All Music Guide’s Jason Birchmeier, were unusually “literate and thoughtful.”
AZ collaborated with Nas through the 1990s, contributing to his second album It Was Written, which hit number one on the Billboard album charts in 1996. Nas and AZ joined the celebrated rap group the Firm in 1997, a group that also included Foxy Brown, Nature, and Dr. Dre. The Firm may have been a victim of its own hype, however, as their only release, 1997’s Album, failed to live up to expectations. AZ also contributed rap tracks to albums for Monica and D’Angelo.
In 1998 AZ released his second album on EMI’s Virgin label, Pieces of a Man, a title borrowed from the 1970s Gil Scott-Heron album of the same name. The album continued AZ’s chronicle of his life in the streets and reflected a deeper maturity, revealing his search for greater self-awareness and, as he told MTV News, a “higher expression of self.” The album, which included the single “What’s the Deal,” also featured guest artists Nas and Half-A-Mil. AZ was particularly pleased that he was able to tap the production work of Dr. Dre and Trackmasters, who had a reputation for only working with the top rap artists. Pieces of a Man was not a commercial success, however, and its relatively slow sales cost AZ his recording contract. Undaunted, AZ self-produced and released his next album, S.O.S.A. (Save Our Streets AZ), in 2000. He later claimed that the he had honed the tenacity to persevere under adversity while growing up in some of New York’s toughest neighborhoods. Predictably, because the album lacked major-label backing it sold poorly, but it did affirm AZ’s commitment to quality rap.
AZ’s persistence paid off, however, and within a year of S.O.S.A.’s release, he secured a second major-label contract. This time he signed with Motown Records, which released 9 Lives in 2001. Simply produced, with few guest rappers, 9 Lives was considered by some a comeback album. Unfortunately, the effort was hampered by its lack of star power as well as low production values—factors that at least one critic attributed to Motown’s lack of experience with, and lack of commitment to, rap artists.
AZ released Aziatic in 2002, also on the Motown label. Featuring such notable guest artists as DR Period, Az Izz, Nas, and Buckwild, this effort achieved critical acclaim, with Brad Mills of All Music Guide considering it one of AZ’s best efforts, rivaled only by his debut album, Doe or Die. In fact, Mills’s only complaint was that the album was too short: “From start to finish, the beats on this album are complex, inventive, and almost perfectly suited for AZ’s style of rhyming . [This is] his best work in a long time Why he would make such a great album and end it short is beyond comprehension.”
Born Anthony Cruz in Brooklyn, NY.
Made recording debut on the “Life’s a Bi***” single from Nas’s Illmatic, 1994; first solo album Doe or Die released on EMI, 1995; released Pieces of a Man, 1998; dropped from EMI because of slow sales; released self-produced S.O.S.A. (Save Our Streets AZ), 2000; signed with Motown Records, released 9 Lives, 2001; released Aziatic, 2002; Grammy nomination for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for the Aziatic single “The Essence,” performed with Nas, 2003.
Addresses: Record company—Universal Music Group, Motown Records, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404.
As for the future, AZ planned to do what he has always done best—survive and even thrive in the face of adversity. “Either go to the top or flop, I’m still going to be me,” he told Jigsaw at AllHipHop.com. In addition to working on his ongoing solo projects, he also planned to continue his collaborations with Nas, to whom he referred in his interview with Jigsaw as his “other half.” Most of all, AZ’s life experience has taught him always to avoid “[g]reat expectations” and to “just do what I do. I don’t premeditate nothing.”
Anyone who doubted AZ’s continued presence at the top of the rap game had only to check the list of Grammy nominees for 2003; his and Nas’s rap “The Essence” from Aziatic was nominated for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.
Doe or Die, EMI, 1995.
Pieces of a Man, Virgin, 1998.
S.O.S.A. (Save Our Streets AZ), self-released, 2000.
9 Lives, Motown, 2001.
Aziatic, Motown, 2002.
Newsday, February 23, 2003, p. D11.
Washington Post, July 17, 1996, p. C7.
“AZ,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (May 26, 2003).
“AZ: Bio,” MTV, http://www.mtv.com/bands/az/az/bio.jhtml(May 26, 2003).
“AZ: Focused: Part 1,” AllHipHop, http://www.allhiphop.com/features/?ID=134 (June 26, 2003).
“AZ Speaks Out on Rules & Regulations, Influence of Dr. Dre,” MTV News, http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1425070/19980320/story.jhtml (May 26, 2003).
“Biography: AZ,” RollingStone.com,http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/bio.asp?oid=4299 (May 26, 2003).
“The Firm,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (July 20, 2003).
AZ • abbr. Arizona (in official postal use).