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AZ (born Anthony Cruz) is a Brooklyn-born American gangsta rapper who has achieved a cult following in spite of little mainstream success. He first came to prominence appearing on Nas' landmark Illmatic (1994, 1994 in music) and soon released Doe or Die (1995, 1995 in music) to critical acclaim, even from critics who hated gangsta rap but liked AZ's moralistic and realistic portrayals of the dangers of thug life.
AZ's fanbase grew considerably after he joined The Firm, a supergroup consisting of AZ, Nas, Foxy Brown and Nature with Dr. Dre and The Trackmaster producing. The Firm's debut, The Firm, was a critical and commercial failure, as was Pieces of a Man, AZ's second solo release. Without a major label, AZ released S.O.S.A to little fanfare in 2000 (see 2000 in music). Soon, however, AZ signed to Motown and released 9 Lives, which returned his name to popular consciousness among hip hop critics but did little to bolster his sales.