AZ Returns In May With Nine Lives

As the first single from his new album, Nine Lives, indicates, AZ has had more than his share of "Problems."

After setting the industry abuzz with his introspective street narrative on Nas' "Life's a Bitch" in 1994, the Brooklyn native gained ghetto celebrity status. His debut, Doe or Die, set him on the path for mainstream fame. He, Foxy Brown and Nas became the Firm, with the trio recording for Dr. Dre's then-new Aftermath label. Fans anticipated a hip-hop classic; while The Firm went platinum, the underworld-themed collection fell short of expectations.

Complicating his woes, EMI - the label he was signed to as a solo artist - folded. He was absorbed by Virgin Records, and after several pushbacks of his second album, Pieces of a Man, the LP dropped in 1998 with little fanfare.

Since then, the Firm has disbanded, rumors of beef between the collective have circulated and AZ has been virtually invisible.

Now with Nine Lives scheduled to drop on May 22 via his Quiet Money Records label (released though Motown), AZ feels rejuvenated, and he says he's once again feeling the love of the streets.

"I bounced back and put a smile on people's faces," AZ said, referring to the buzz generated by the bootleg S.O.S.A. (Save Our Streets AZ) that circulated last fall. "I was putting some things together, and it kind of got out there. That helped. People realized AZ is still on his job, that there was a void in the game."

Nine Lives features four songs from the bootleg, including "Problems" and "Love Me." Making cameos on the LP are Joe, Amil, Beanie Sigel, Timbaland (via production) and Foxy Brown, whom AZ said he's remained friends with through the years. He also said the beef between himself and Nas has been exaggerated.

"It ain't never been no friction between us," AZ said. "Everybody's gotta grow. When you're going through the game, you learn from experience. I was going through my own world. [Nas' music] was moving, so [he] had to move with it."

The two have reconnected after being estranged for close to three years, and AZ said they'll record together.

"We're grown men now," AZ said. As for the conversation that brought them back together, "Basically it was like, 'Cut the bullsh--,' " he recalled. "I know your situation, you know my situation. It ain't about no paper now. You sold millions of records; I'm still on the grind. You're at one side of the candle; I'm at the other. We're both burning at both ends.' "

AZ also said he has no harsh feelings toward Dr. Dre, who expressed his disappointment in the Firm project several times on his Dr. Dre 2001.

"I think he was showing love, to be honest," AZ said. "He was basically talking about the errors he went though. He was just giving his autobiography to the people. I built with Dre. He knows it's real on my end as far as being a man. He knows the talent is there, or else he wouldn't have messed with us in the first place."

AZ, who also appears on Jon B.'s new album, is trying to line up releases from other artists for Quiet Money, and he recently shot the video for "Problems" in Brooklyn. His biggest project is putting the past behind him.

"I feel bad that I didn't really grow to my greatest potential in the game and reflect what I should've reflected," AZ admitted. "My main thing now is to show the world I'm holding it down. This sh-- is like a new beginning. I'm bringing back the AZ people love, the AZ that people embraced. Right now I feel unstoppable."