The last time AZ released an album, he was coming off a 13-year wait: 2021’s Doe or Die II, the long-gestating sequel to one of the most beloved and overlooked debuts of 1990s East Coast Hip Hop. But topping his debut – a cornerstone of New York mafioso rap – was never in the cards, though the album largely delivered and reminded fans why he had so much hype back in the golden era.

In the two years since, AZ has mostly stayed in the shadows, emerging only for the occasional guest verse. Many fans assumed Doe or Die II would be his swan song. But the 51-year-old is apparently still eager to test his peerless mic skills. Truth Be Told, his tenth album, pairs AZ’s undiminished ability to bend the English language with legendary producer Buckwild’s soul chops.

Unlike Doe or Die II, the project feels unburdened by expectations. With the weight of following up a cult classic lifted, AZ drafted up a list of contemporaries (Fat Joe, Pharoahe Monch) and got to work. The result is a slender, satisfying slice of nostalgia that nonetheless doesn’t push much beyond showcasing AZ’s timeless flow and Buckwild’s crate-digging mastery.

On opener “Reintroduction,” over Buckwild’s fast-paced drums and chopped vocal sample, the 51-year-old East New York native asserts “no mumble or drill on it” as he demonstrates a preternatural ability to pluck words from thin air: “Ambition as long as the fans listen/Truth be told, no groupie hoes/No goofies that gaslight but can’t lose me though/Hoochie souls, Baton Rouge Boosie mode/Rappin’ dudes tryin’ to do what Fugees sold.”

Though Truth Be Told lacks any tracks that can hang with AZ’s best (“One of the Greatest” comes the closest), every verse is stuffed with impressive displays of internal rhymes and a creaseless flow. AZ is well aware of his elite pen game and appropriately spends much of the album flexing that muscle.

I’m Big Daddy Kane and Lil Wayne/Frugal but a guru since a poodle spittin’ slang,” he snarls on “The GOAT,” which repackages the drum pattern from Buckwild’s most famous beat, Biggie’s “I Got a Story to Tell,” beneath wistful strings. Elsewhere, AZ seems less eager to prove his skills than to bask in his accomplishments.

This Is Why” finds the man who once promised to “live the dream for all my peeps that never made it” finding peace by doing just that. “Amazing” is a less effective track in a similar self-congratulatory vein, a bland “we made it” jam featuring a forgettable hook and an ill-fitting feature spot from singer and rapper Mumu Fresh.

Preceding a two-song dip (“Amazing” and “Still Got It”) is the album’s peak: “One of the Greatest.” Dusty drums, organs, and piano stabs guide AZ on a detailed journey through his nearly 30 years in the game. He reminisces about his demo-free entry into the game, his career-making guest verse on Nas’ “Life’s a Bitch” and the formation of supergroup The Firm: “No demo, no MO, hopped on my first feature freaked it slow tempo.”

AZ was an active participant in some of Hip Hop’s most important moments, a show-stealer on any track he featured on, and the secret weapon of The Firm. But he’s never quite linearly addressed these exploits on wax until now, and he does so in thrilling detailed fashion.

Buckwild’s production arsenal proves to be the album’s weakest link. He mostly sticks to his comfort zone: crisp drums, clipped vocal samples, and the occasional live instrumental splash to keep things warm. It all feels a bit too predictable, like this suite of beats was languishing in a Diggin’ In the Crates Crew lockbox until AZ stopped through to lay some rhymes down.

Any release after Doe or Die II is a treat for AZ fans, considering that the 13-years-in-the-making project was never guaranteed to see the light of day. Unlike his one-time co-conspirator Nas, whose late-career renaissance has featured newer talents like Don Toliver and A Boogie wit da Hoodie, AZ seems content to lean heavily on nostalgia. Truth Be Told succeeds as a trip down memory lane, but doesn’t travel much further afield.

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