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In Brian DePalma's "Scarface," the classic rags-to-riches gangster flick which has been appropriated into hip-hop culture a la baggy jeans and blunt cigars, Alejandro Sosa is a debonair man with exquisite tastes. His interests and power lie behind the scenes; he's equal parts business and family man. In the movie, he is described as a "wealthy landowner. Educated in England; very good family. But this man is the business brain and drug overlord of an empire that stretches across the Andes. He's not your ordinary drug dealer." "I feel that I represent that character 'cause I like to be in control of things and I'm on the low," explains 26 year old AZ (Anthony Cruz), shedding some of the mystique that surrounds "Sosa," his secondary nom de rap. "It was a connection with him and me in a sense. If you got anybody to choose, you wanna choose somebody that you feel fits your character the best."

On Pieces Of A Man, his Noo Trybe / Virgin Records debut, AZ continues the quest which began with his 1995 quarter-million selling Doe Or Die, which begat the gold-certified single, "Sugar Hill." While the rest of hip-hop remained enamored with material trappings, "Sugar Hill" depicted a place not unlike King Arthur's Camelot--a metaphysical locale intertwined with a state of mind and a quality of existence where life blossomed like lotuses and was measured in peaceful breaths. <:p> "I'm representin' straight up survival," says the introspective Brooklynite. "My music is for the hustler's mentality on the intellectual side, to help them. It's just takin' a look at what I went through and what I supply verbally to the rap game. I don't just talk about rap. I rap, but I talk about maneuvers from a hustler's perspective."

Throughout Pieces Of A Man, which takes its title from poet/singer/musician/pioneer Gil Scott-Heron's 1971 classic album, AZ weaves a poignant lattice-work of street stanzas with an eloquence amalgamated from pimp witticisms, gangsta-lean non-sequiturs, jail-house aphorisms and a hustler's lexicon. Like shards of broken glass embedded in a pavement-hard foundation, AZ's voice is glassphalt as he skis over the tracks produced by The Trackmasterz (LL Cool J, Foxy Brown, Nas), the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, the incomparable Dr. Dre, and L.E.S., the man behind "Sugar Hill" and "Life's A Bitch"--the underground antiphon from Nas' classic debut, featuring the bardic 42-seconds of ghetto reality which landed AZ a recording contract without a demo. Like a gin and juice mix, AZ brings elaborate, pinpoint narration to the percolating disco sensibilities of "Just Because" and "How You Livin," where he and Nas maturely reflect on their good fortunes since the days of "Life's A Bitch."

Brooklyn is no different than any other inner city where economic and physical struggle are a part of the daily cycle. Whether legal or illegal, there are many ways out--though each has its obstacles, pitfalls and snares. "My story is I was just travelling the worlds tryin' to open doors for me to eat more," explains AZ. "Whatever it took, that's what I was doing. Born in East New York, so off [the] top you know I'm poverty stricken. Projects. So then the project mental comes into play."

He had an active young mind, which led him to the works of ghetto laureates Donald Goines and Robert Beck and the Lessons and Mathematics of the Nations of Gods And Earths (from which he derives his stage name: "AZ" is short for "Asiatic"). Writing rhymes since the age of 13, AZ and a neighborhood friend would run through Double Trouble's routine from "Wild Style" (ironically, he now stars with Nas in a Sprite Commercial which re-enacts the movie scenario). In high school, however, AZ took to a ruffian's ways. Numerous counts of fighting, weapons possessions charges, a superintendent's suspension and being transferred between four institutions mar his high school transcript. "Sometimes it's hard to forget about that," AZ confesses. "That's the weak part. I don't like to glorify that part, 'cause that's the part that was a savage part of me. Sometimes I really wanna forget that part; that's the darker side. That don't really make a person or break a person."

AZ's struggle within and maturation are evident on Pieces Of A Man. One of the few hip-hop artists truly taking things to a higher plateau, AZ elevates not only hip-hop but contemporary R&B by respectfully requesting sex within a monogamous relationship on the soulful and silky "What's The Deal." Coming off as an old soul with a young spirit, AZ is confident enough to unleash verbal capsules of hip-hop amphetamine such as "Sosa" and "The Birth," yet vulnerable enough to offer heartfelt knowledge over the florid arrangements and lush vocals of "Last Dayz":

"The streets was hectic / So I stacked and made my exit / More dough to get / Focused my thoughts for me to go legit / Ferocious shit /Cop a huge castle on a ocean cliff / Imagine that / A few years back /I was baggin' cracks / Magnum gats / Playin' street corners / Committin'savage acts.

The title track chronicles AZ's time as a street hustler, with tips that can help safeguard a dealer's life without endorsing the lifestyle: "I played all positions / Plus learned from each mission / Politic with all type [of] niggas with different diction..." he raps.

"These kids need some guidance," says AZ. "Right now a lot of cats is runnin' wild with no knowledge of self in general, no dreams, no motivation, no nothing. I'm not talking about you gotta be smart, your I.Q. and GPA gotta be this, that and a third. I'm just sayin', have some type of direction. Even in [whatever game] you gonna be in ... whatever it may be, have some kind of direction."

Whether it's the fish and chips store he's opening up on his old East New York stomping grounds, the words of wisdom on his genre-challenging sophomore album, or his position as an Executive in the mega-star rap collective known as The Firm, AZ's maturing world view provides blueprints for aspiring entrepreneurs and rap artists alike.

"The best kept secret is the one never told," he says. "Dig into this album, get inside, read between the lines--that's the intelligent man."

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