On Doe or Die: 15th Anniversary Special Edition, AZ has a good idea: why not revisit a piece of work from early in his career? The original album was released in 1995, a year after his breathless breakout bars on Nas’ “Life’s a Bitch.” He was able to forgo the demo-as-job-application route and was signed to EMI Records off the strength of his Illmatic verse, an incredibly rare occurrence. Doe or Die was a lot of snippets of street life, aspirations, and moralizing. Excepting the excellent, slowly-paced “Mo Money, Mo Murder,” AZ delivered an atmosphere of stress through his flow, which seems out-of-breath but actually features outstanding breath control, if that makes sense. Iconic producers Pete Rock, Buckwild, and Ski all contributed to the debut album of what seemed like a career on the rise.
Fifteen years and six albums later, AZ still hasn’t switched up the format--to borrow one of his album titles. The subject matter is the same, and he still can’t pronounce the letter “r.” He became respected but never really famous (give or take The Firm debacle). Instead, he found a niche and stayed there. Why revisit Doe or Die, then, especially if the lyrics on the remixed songs remain the same? Because there’s ample room for re-imagining the music, if not for all-out improvement.
Special Edition (as I’ll refer to it from now on to avoid a headache of confusion) features only four songs from Doe or Die. “Gimme Yours” and “Rather Unique” were two bright-sounding Pete Rock tracks, the former featuring a harp, and the latter some dreamy keys over a tough drum break. Statik Selektah adds sweeping strings and a singer reappearing every few bars on “Gimme Yours (2010),” making for a more dramatic, yearning sound that complements the refrain, “Why don’t you give me the world/Give me what you can’t get back.” Lil’ Fame’s beat for “Rather Unique (2010)” adds an interesting southern-fried guitar lick and military drum roll that doesn’t really mesh with the lyrics. It’s admirable that producers tackled two of the more well-known songs on the album produced by a legend and went interesting ways with their remixes, even if they aren’t going to make anyone forget the originals. (Another smart decision was to steer clear of “Uncut Raw,” with its click-clacks and bells of impending doom, and “Mo Money, Mo Murder,” an intricate, orchestral five-minute trip to the cinema. No amount of re-imagining was going to create as powerful an impression of Doe or Die’s opener and centerpiece.) “I Feel For You” was a weak track on the original, and seems perfect for this project, yet the new version by Baby Paul sounds like a lame interpolation of “Can’t Stop” from A.W.O.L., AZ’s 2005 album. The best remix is Statik Selektah’s “Your World Don’t Stop (2010),” which excises the awkward female vocal hook, an issue which marred an otherwise perfect reflection on making plans and remaining forward-thinking while incarcerated. Instead, a soulful effect is achieved through a compelling blend of strings, scratches, and a vocal sample intoning “Don’t stop… keep on walking” at the end of every few bars.
As to the new songs on Special Edition--I wish there were more of them. Three of the six tracks are unremarkable, including one hidden behind three minutes of stitched-together concert audio (gee, thanks) at the end of the album. Even with that filler, the album’s ten tracks clock in at under 35 minutes. The three good ones alone almost make the whole project worthwhile, however. The intro, “Tribute,” finds AZ starting by laughing off doubters: “They said I was washed up/I am fresh” and ending with “See ya’ll suckers another 15 years from now.” Nascent tweaks the drums and guitar from Freddie Gibbs’ “Live by the Game” to create a regal track. Immediately, “Feel My Pain” follows, and it’s an absolute banger. Frank Dukes’ punching drums, a four-note baseline, tweaked guitar notes, and strings keep the energy up, while AZ props up his pedigree by reminding listeners of his friendship with Nas and the Notorious B.I.G. before throwing down an I’m-still-here mantra: “Superb penmanship/heard that my pen was sick/never impotent/Wonder where my niggas went.” The scratched, sampled hook also lends credence to his sustained viability, with Busta Rhymes spitting “You frontin’ like this was a thing of the past!” Finally, “The Calm” is the third excellent Statik Selektah track on the album, a driving baseline topped with delicate synthesizers and ghostly voices. AZ throws down a huge hookless stream-of-consciousness verse, saying that life in the ’hood will “buckle your knees… I’m trying to breathe” before letting the question of personal responsibility surface: “These teenage boys/they wanna bang/’til they caught, get arraigned/then the courts where they hang/Will it change us, willies and ballers/Are we to blame?” It’s the continuation of the maturity he showed on Doe or Die, but it’s now reflected on the same age group he was leaving 15 years ago instead of on himself and his peers. Is he a role model whose lyrics or actions have a negative effect?
As a proper album and tribute to Doe or Die, Special Edition is sometimes unsatisfying in execution, but it bats about .600, features some of AZ’s sharpest rhymes, and mostly avoids the whiff of tax write-off that some fourth-quarter records carry. It seems the right direction for AZ on his next album is to continue to dig into the complicated process of leaving a legacy while cultivating the chemistry he’s shown with Statik Selektah and Frank Dukes. For now, he has reached elder statesman status in hip hop without too much of a “get off my lawn” attitude.