AZ is widely regarded as one of the most slept on rappers of all time. The rapper of Dominican descent was infamously signed off the strength of one guest verse, and a year later his debut album Doe Or Die was met with high praise for popular singles like “Sugar Hill” and “Gimme Yours.” But that mythical origin story is telling, because although AZ was great at hammering away on one style across a short, 10-track album, he didn’t always show the versatility that his compatriot Nas often displayed. Hence why his second album, Pieces Of a Man, didn’t quite live up to everyone’s expectations.
It was a year after Esco released It Was Written, which went double platinum but felt like a spit in the face to those who copped Illmatic. Suddenly the QB poet was a Mafia boss, and the glitz and glamor that invaded his rhymes felt too foreign for many heads to rock with. On his own sophomore album, it felt like AZ was going a similar route. While his debut featured Illmatic producers like Pete Rock and L.E.S. as well as legends like Buckwild, DR Period, and N.O. Joe, one-third of Pieces Of a Man was produced by Trackmasters, the guys who shouldered most of the blame for Nas’ more mainstream sound on IWW. Unknown producers Goldfinga and Gucci Jones also contributed to four beats on the album, giving it an even more uneven feel. When AZ named the album intro “New Life,” he wasn’t kidding.
Overall, the album never lands on its identity, with dropped-in singles like “What’s The Deal” and “Just Because” interrupting the more throwback feel of songs like “The Pay Back” and “Pieces Of A (Black) Man.” Even the title of the latter speaks to how fractured the LP feels. AZ dropped a video for a Trackmasters-produced single called “Hey AZ” (above) with SWV prior to the album’s release, but it was never included on the final pressing, perhaps because it sounded just like Mariah Carey’s similar-sounding smash hit “Honey,” which came out around the same time, or perhaps because the single just didn’t perform well with audiences.
Still, the high points of the album got washed down the collective memory drain with the rest of the project. “How Ya Livin” (above) with Nas is an instant L.E.S.-produced classic, as Esco flaunts his new don style and AZ weaves multisyllabic rhymes (“Select features, sit back connect the pieces / Inject the thesis, spoke to my pops and left him speechless”). “Love Is Love” is my personal favorite, as it features two of the best verses on the album courtesy of mega sleepers Half-A-Mil and Nature.
Another highlight at the time was AZ’s Doo Wop freestyle (below). He goes over a plethora of songs (Young Bleed’s “How You Do Dat,” Timbo and Magoo’s “Luv 2 Luv U (Remix),” and Janet Jackson’s “Got Til It’s Gone,” for example) that were hot at the time, and it feels like something Steve Stoute would have strategized, as it followed the same blueprint Nas had laid with It Was Written: shimmering beats for the mainstream album, jackin’ for beats on the street cut.
It feels like AZ’s career has gone through a double rinse cycle: not only is his entire body of work slept on, but most people only care to highlight Doe Or Die when they remember him. When he dropped the S.O.S.A. tape in 2000, it felt like his buzz had resurged. Then in 2005, he dropped A.W.O.L., which caught people’s attention with standouts like “New York” featuring Rae and Ghost. And just last month, he dropped a fresh new record, aptly titled “Vintage.”
People forget the gems he dropped on his sophomore album, but the best cuts still get mileage 17 years after the fact. To this day, Pieces Of A Man still has fragments of dopeness for the avid listener.