The Format

Artist: AZTitle: The FormatRating: 3 1/2 StarsReviewed by: Michael Pollock

It means nothing to call AZ a veteran. It's the wars he's seen and the aftermaths he's survived that count, and trigger the double-take every time he releases a new album. Yes, this is the AZ from "Life's a Bitch." Yes, the same AZ that did "Sugar Hill." What? Yes, that was way the hell back in, like, 1995. The Firm? Yeah, that was him, too. Nas? You can figure they're still cool. Who knows?

All of this yearbook nostalgia and yet, AZ's never had a proper career. The spotlight he found himself in early on-the sole guest on a classic album-outshined just about everything he did once that spotlight found another host. It's easy to look back and snort at the cruelty: AZ's like the prodigy that got to skip a grade but couldn't adjust once he got to high school. And Hip-Hop is a lot like high school.

So what to make of The Format (Quiet Money/Fastlife), AZ's sixth solo album in twice as many years? It's tight and soulful, little-known producers like Emile and J. Cardim getting lots of play, using big, sweeping samples that help swell AZ's cries of joy and pain, life and death, death and rebirth. AZ's tender lyricism and nimble delivery are marathon runners, crawling into the tightest corners of each beat and sticking there, unable to be thrown out of the way. "This What I Do" is the best of it, a shuddering, well-paced revelation of how Hip-Hop can shatter integrity while building fame. But it's the stark blend of confidence and confession that's really impressive. On the eerie, Statik Selektah-crafted "Animal," AZ raps: "Never been a napper/Never fucked with no rappers/I'm so gone with it/But I'm so long-winded." You really can't disagree.

AZ's always had an understanding of street culture that goes beyond its quick-fix, dead-end allure. It is an intuition that's grown stronger and more relevant with age. But that sharpness needs stirring backdrops in order to sink in, something The Format struggles at times to provide. M.O.P.'s Lil Fame, who produces three of the album's 12 tracks (and appears on the mismatched clunker "Sit 'Em Back Slow," with his better half, Billy Danze) does worst, churning out some real crossover garbage on "Doing That" and recycling Rick James on the former.

There's also the nagging feeling that the low-budgetisms that drove AZ's earlier work are now holding him back. The indie antidote doesn't much matter when you've got in-demand dudes like Alchemist and Just Blaze actually making incredible beats-beats that would gladly welcome a weathered hard-head like AZ. So how fitting that the title track, a pairing with DJ Premier, just about crushes anything else on the album: in the right space, with the right people, the format takes care of itself.