(Quiet Money; 2006)
By Chet Betz | 30 October 2007
Dammit, here we are again, A. It’s not that The Format is a big step backwards from last year’s solid A.W.O.L., it’s just that it reeks of lessons unlearned and left to rot. On A.W.O.L. the man of the hour was DJ Premier, and he and AZ came together to make “The Come Up,” premium throwback steez and one of the year’s top five hip-hop singles. It decimated everything else on the album, which still managed a handful of good tracks outside of that difficult contrast. The duo pull the same self-destructive single hit coup with the The Format’s incandescent title track, but now the disparity between actuality and what could have been is even greater, and more disappointing due to promise ignored or simply left behind for the easier way out.
AZ doesn’t just share Illmatic (1994) with Nas. They’ve got the same beat ear, one that’s more wrong than right and was introduced to DJ Premier by luck. AZ’s almost always good at what he does; his voice was born for rapping, his cadence is effortless and smooth, and his vivid lyricism wraps NY emotions in NY wryness. On occasion his ease slips into laziness (most obviously here on the stiff, static end-rhyme emphasis of “Get High”), but it’s usually his choice in backing that leaves him out to dry, uninspired and uninspiring. Emile’s adequate but anonymous beats manage to render the idea of “Emile-esque” absurd; J. Cardim’s synth orchestration on “Vendetta” would be too cheap for the Diplomats; Fizzy Womack’s production fits his name; the second best beat on the album (“Animal”) is produced by some dude who decided to call himself Statik Selektah. The bombast of Emile’s three-step string descent and crazy horns in bonus track “Royal Salute” sounds pretty damn okay, so someone fill me in on why that’s a tacked-on 2:20 when I get almost four minutes of M.O.P. B-side with “Sit ‘Em Back Slow.”
That’s right, friends, M.O.P. crash the party, along with Jha Jha, Fresh, Big Pooh, Phonte, Samson, and, er, Ralo. The guest list alone shows a decline from last year’s Ghostface, Raekwon, CL Smooth, etc. It’s as if, due to A.W.O.L.’s underwhelming reception, The Format doesn’t even have the wherewithal to believe in itself, to try to make the most of its circumstances. Yeah, AZ’s working Quiet Money, plumbing Koch Records’ easy but largely faux-money stacked subsidiary funding; it’d be unreasonable to expect multiple contributions from someone as in demand as post-Aguilera Primo. Still, at least A.W.O.L. had a couple cuts from the Heatmakerz, who now pop up on CL Smooth’s American Me, a mighty comparable album that shows how a rapper with a modest budget doesn’t have to let his fucking A&R man produce a track (“Games” by Bob Perry and Arnold Mischkulnig: the names are real). Irony’s probably not the right word for what I’m thinking when I listen to AZ’s “Animal” borrow its titular vocal scratch from CL’s “Smoke in the Air,” the big 2006 street single for Smooth, so let’s call it a sorry coincidence and move on.
Move on to what, though? AZ’s always been light on the subtext, and in the face of all The Format’s unspectacular, uninteresting collaborations, the listener’s left with little else beyond the remaining truth that AZ’s an underappreciated, under-supported rapper that makes best-of-year songs when Primo’s got his back. That is what it is, but one tends to think that AZ surely must have some favors he’s neglecting to call in. Or that his ass is slumped in the wrong gear. The man’s surroundings are starting to get shitty, and he looks appropriately depressed in every single Format-attached photograph. You obviously don’t want to be here, A, so what makes you think that we would?