Five years after the critical celebration surrounding his debut release, Doe or Die, AZ's name suddenly didn't seem all that familiar. Sure, Doe or Die had indeed been a quiet classic of sorts, but it never shook the cash register, and his subsequent efforts were even less successful from a commercial standpoint. Perhaps it was no surprise then that he encountered problems with his label after the indifferent response to his sophomore album in 1998. But three years later, AZ returned with a new label, Motown, and what he obviously feels is a comeback of sorts, 9 Lives. There are some problems with this comeback, though. First of all, Motown has never been known as a fostering environment for rap artists. Secondly, perhaps related to the first problem, there is a serious lack of big-money talent on 9 Lives -- no Pete Rocks or Jay-Zs for this album. Granted, these problems are purely commercial, but they're bad omens for any contemporary, commercial rap effort. No matter whether or not AZ actually succeeds with his unofficial comeback from a commercial standpoint, he's done an admirable job when judged purely on artistic merit -- his rhymes are obviously well written, he delivers them with enthusiasm, and his low-profile production team turns in some good second-rate DJ Premier/Pete Rock-style sample-laden beats. But "admirable performance" is about the best you can say about the album. It's been over five years since Doe or Die, and AZ has never blossomed in the way that Nas and Jay-Z did -- Doe or Die was his pinnacle and sadly remains so. He's not quite as wordy as Nas, not as grimy as Mobb Deep, and not as jiggy as Jigga. With a little more charisma or wit, he'd be a noteworthy talent, or with beats by Pete Rock he'd at least rival his performance on Doe or Die. But as things stand on 9 Lives, AZ remains second tier, lacking a unique identity in a game with few unclaimed niches and little patience.
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AllMusic Review by Jason Birchmeier