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A.W.O.L (Quiet $$/Fastlife Music)

Feeling old? Ten years of listening to New York hip-hop's hustle squawk and Five Percent hints seems particularly silly now that the East Coast's heyday rappers have settled for decent indie money or sold out for G-Unit glory. Brooklynite rapper AZ, once the Jim Jones to Nas's Cam, is betting on the former 401K. But that's life, dudes. It's testament to 1994 that AZ's ensured cigarette-boat flow on A.W.O.L, his sixth non-Firm album, sounds sober and hermetic like crisp Manhattan mornings. Joined by ski-maskless kingpins Raekwon and Ghostface on the very grown-up "New York," AZ's trade of intellectualized ghetto tales no longer bears the loquacious density of a severe weed head. Likewise for "The Come Up," an Abel Ferrera waxing through the Rotten Apple's prisons, domestic disputes, and DEA treachery in the face of success, where Aziekel spits, "So understand I know from firsthand the lives of a churchman high off his first gram," over Premiere's foreboding beat wake. Yeah, there's also that throwaway for The Opium Group ("Still Alive"), but rap fans need to stop reminiscing about "Life's a Bitch" and show some love. Damn.

 
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