After a decade (and some change) of hype and false starts, AZ — often considered one of the most underrated lyricists in Hip Hop history — has finally released his ninth studio album, Doe Or Die II, 26 years removed from the original.

It doesn’t have the Nas guest verse he guaranteed in a 2011 interview or some of the producers he was admittedly courting such as Dr. Dre, Kanye West, DJ Premier or even some of the contributors to his beloved debut like L.E.S. or DR Period. However, across the 13-song affair (released via his Quiet Money imprint), AZ is as sharp as ever, seemingly impervious to the cultural shifts and gimmicks.

For longtime fans of the MC, there’s a lot to love. Though not a direct follow-up to the lauded “Sugar Hill” B-side “Rather Unique” from the first DOD, he links with Pete Rock for “Check Me Out,” with AZ bending his trademark wordplay around a gorgeous sample and interspersed PR ad-libs. Then there’s “Ritual,” an Alchemist-produced cipher with Conway The Machine and mixtape-era Lil Wayne, with all three rappers proving why they’re so revered.

In many ways, Do Or Die II doesn’t feel like a true-blue sequel to AZ’s classic debut album, which (alongside JAY-Z’s Reasonable Doubt and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…) popularized mafioso rap of the day. Aside from the Czarface-produced “Found My Niche” — a detailed account of his pre-Illmatic life before waking up to the reality of his trajectory and eventually dropping his iconic “Life’s A Bitch” verse — the LP feels refined, almost removed from the themes of its predecessor.

The brooding aesthetic of songs such as “Uncut Raw” and “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Murder, Mo’ Homicide” is replaced with a hardened OG perspective, like on the pair of Baby Paul-produced tracks “Keep It Real” and “Never Enough” featuring Rick Ross. The latter shows off an unlikely pairing on paper but ends up being a top-tier highlight, with Ross matching the New York mafia aesthetic yet never showing up the godfather AZ.

The project does lack a clear-cut hit-single — a “Sugar Hill,” if you will. There are also some noticeably lackluster choruses; Dave East sounds uninspired with his Biggie-interpolated hook on “Blow That S#%t” and the absence of any hook at all on “Different” feels slightly awkward.

There are also a few outliers; the Bink-produced “Bulletproof” and Rockwilder-produced “What’s Good” featuring T-Pain are solid, yet nothing special. However, they do at least change the vibe and show AZ can still learn new tricks. Despite the risky songs being unremarkable, this does little to quell AZ’s potency on this project, which holds more gems than Zambia’s Kagem Emerald Mine.

Ultimately, trying to recreate the magic of his debut would feel forced this far removed from the moment in time — not unlike Nas attempting to recreate Illmatic. Rather, “Grown man elegance mixed with ghetto allure” as he raps on “Check Me Out” is the most accurate description of this project.

Do Or Die II meets the expectations of the people who grew up with AZ’s music and understand his importance in Hip Hop, though it doesn’t quite elevate the MC or show any new layers. But with many legacy rappers either trying too hard to fit into the times, or resting on nostalgic laurels, AZ finds a way to stick to his guns without sounding dated.

AZ’s latest is what growing gracefully in Hip Hop looks and sounds like, sticking to his strengths without sounding out of touch, a lesson many other Golden Age rappers could take to heart.

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