The ironic thing about reissue albums is that although they are intended for a niche audience – namely fans who have been with the artist since the beginning as well as new fans in the midst of devouring a back catalogue – these albums have often been downright disrespectful to the “Tuesday at midnight” die-hards. Many times these CDs are rush-jobs that are conspicuously incomplete due to clearance problems but still tout themselves as “essential” by pointing to suspicious “re-masterings” and a slew of live versions of tracks we’ve heard a million times. Certain labels have even gone as far as gathering a bunch of C-list artists to re-record a classic in the form of cover songs which were then released under the guise of a “Special Anniversary Edition.” (See Priority’s 10th for Straight Outta Compton)
Although the 15th Anniversary Edition of AZ’s still underrated Doe or Die should more accurately be called a 15th Anniversary companion, the legendary Brooklyn emcee knows his fans – and the current landscape of commercial music – well enough to realize that anyone who would consider purchasing this already owns the original. Rather than attempt – and most likely fail – to cash in by repackaging his debut album as a double disc with extras, AZ has cut to the chase so we can rediscover, reconsider and prepare for the sequel.
Where 1995’s Doe or Die should serve as a lesson in narrative economy as well as structural efficiency for many of today’s emcees with a gluttonous appetite for pointless skits and features for every track; the Doe or Die 15th Anniversary Edition should serve as a guide for any veteran artist preparing a special edition who thinks a few radio show freestyles will do the trick. This is an album that for the most part succeeds in giving the true fans what they want – quality new material and remixes by producers of a caliber on par with the original roster. Bringing in consistent names like Statik Selektah, Lil Fame and MoSS, with fan-bases of their own, and asking for a fresh backdrop rather than a reinvention the wheel should even make AZ some new fans.
Doe or Die‘s genius lies in AZ’s abilities as a rhymer. He had a nimble style that never forgot about substance. He sounded hungry but always landed gracefully. Listening to AZ on a track, you could almost see his amused sneer as he surveyed his ham-handed competition; emcees whose rhymes dead-ended with their tough guy bravado before ever even scratching the surface. They were the ones who brought knives to gunfights. AZ brought a plague. Sure he could put the heads of “teeny boppers” through the “propellers of helicopters” but that didn’t cut deep enough. He’d “slaughter your circulatory like leukemia” and then for good measure “EQ your brain waves”
Although the original album’s beats didn’t astound, they got the job done and have aged remarkably well when placed alongside albums like Kool G Rap‘s 4,5,6 released a week earlier and Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise” which was for some reason laying waste to any hip-hop single that showed some chart movement that season.
Having half of this anniversary edition made up of 15 year-old verses coupled with new beats – by producers who pride themselves on innovating and evolving – could have been a recipe for disaster. Thankfully, these beatmakers are also students of Hip Hop and keep things stripped down without sounding stale. Their approach is one all about the counterpoint. Statik Selektah took Pete Rock‘s melancholy “Gimme Yours” and brightened the tone while Lil Fame went in the opposite direction making “Rather Unique” grimier, more threatening.
But Doe or Die‘s verses themselves help make the updated versions sound fresh. The things that the original album saw as important made the countless number of two-dimensional coke Rap albums released in its wake sound more dated. AZ may have rhymed about that same street corner but he had a different definition of the pinnacle of success. It was wasn’t about becoming the next Giancanna or Gambino, it was about becoming the next John D. Rockefeller, the true gangster. And where Doe or Die may also talk of gun-play it also puts a commodity on intellect as we’re told the “mind of a Princeton grad” is deadly too.
With Doe or Doe 15th‘s new material like the MoSS produced Mancini-by-way-of- Miami sounding “I’m Ill”, you get even more of a sense of what set AZ apart. He was self-aware in a way that acknowledged the cinema of hip hop even while he was living in the present tense and speaking in the first person. Not only did he want to remembered for his exploits and triumphs but also for how he told them. That awareness came across crystal clear when he touted himself as another Donald Goines, a master creator of characters. Too many other rappers were just content being characters. Even in making his debut AZ knew that being dynamic doesn’t matter if you can’t add dimension to your landscape and some shadows to your sketches.