Artist: AZTitle: A.W.O.L.Rating: 4 StarsReviewed by: Bill "Low-Key" Heinzelman

Eleven years after his legendary debut on Nas' "Life's A Bitch," AZ

has finally delivered the album we have waited for. Even though he

has shown glimpses of greatness on Doe Or Die and

Aziatic, his fifth solo album A.W.O.L. (Quiet Money/Fast

Life) is the most cohesive and focused album of his career. By

abandoning the commercial sounds of Final Call, which was

shelved last year, AZ delivers a gritty yet soulful album that

highlights his versatility. Additionally, fans will finally come away

with a firm understanding of who Anthony Cruz is. With its focus on

content, lyrics and strong beats, the gimmick free album is exactly

what New York City needs right now. In a time when East Coast artists

vehemently try to appeal to certain demographics, AZ stays true to the

Big Apple.

This New York state of mind is never more evident than on the

DJ Premier produced lead single "The Come Up." Primo's vintage thumps

provide a hit of nostalgia, as AZ rekindles his mid 90's hunger with

vivid street imagery with lines like, "Jewels is like hypnosis/its

ferocious, when broke niggas get focused/the cars come out, bottles at

the bar run out." Keeping the same vibe is the aptly titled "New

York" featuring Ghostface and Raekwon. Just as Ja Rule, Jadakiss and

Fat Joe repped for the mainstream with their smash hit, AZ and company

formulate a similar effort for the underground. Over Emile's haunting

production and DJ Premier's scratches, AZ, Rae and Ghost take it back

to the glory days of NYC. Similarly, "Street Life," which features

Half-A-Mil and Begetz, finds AZ in Doe Or Die form, as the

track's symphonious violins are reminiscent of AZ's Mafioso sounds of

the past.

While AZ reps hard for the streets for one-half of the album,

the remaining portion of A.W.O.L. features the soulful

production heard on Aziatic. The Heatmakerz deliver their usual

high-pitched soul on "So Sincere" and the conceptual "Never Change."

The Disco D produced "City Of Gods" finds AZ getting his strut on,

while craving for the finer things in life. But its on the standout

"Can't Stop" where we get AZ's best writing, as he depicts the

pitfalls of the streets and certain individuals around him who get

caught up in the life.

Besides the irritating synth keys of "Still Alive," AZ stays

consistent through the album. Even though many feel he has failed to

tap his full potential over the years, AZ has finally gotten over the

hump with A.W.O.L. While Anthony Cruz has reveled as the

underdog you loved to root for, A.W.O.L. proves he can make an

album with the upper echelon of emcees in this game. And while it may

have taken longer than expected, it seems as if AZ had to get close to

the edge and almost lose himself to finally deliver the album we all