AZ Sorts Through Fan Mail

Stream – AZ “Fan Mail”

It is 2002. AZ  is lounging in his living room on a tasteful sofa facing a coffee table, we must presume. Wifey is singularly focused on preparing a meal. She half-hears his requests to read some newly arrived letters over his shoulder. She does not mean to be dismissive but her work is unfinished. Life zooms along in the background while the artist slows down to reflect. This is a truth that informs much of AZ’s music. Listeners who nurture grandiose dreams while living check to check hear enhanced versions of their own lives in his eloquently rhymed street life tales and artistic mission statements.

When AZ pens a fictively inflected song that involves him reading fan letters aloud, we expect that the voice he employs to represent his fans will ring proudly aspirational in the face of adversity. But AZ expects even more. He exhales anxiously when he opens the letters. After reading their real world counterparts he knows that his invented letters have a life that is all their own. The rhymes are written in his cadence and flavored with his slang, but when he reads them back to himself they will be armed with the weight of a collective’s struggle to survive and the unsavory intimate details of loss and strife. His first letter comes from Fishkill Correctional Facility.

As a prisoner awaiting sentencing, the writer of the first letter lives under constant surveillance, ruled by codes of conduct he has no choice but to accept. In order to maintain sanity and hope, he has learned to discipline himself for his own benefit, within the institution and society that imprisons him. To his credit, he has developed a level of learned insight into his predicament that might have proven useful in an educational setting had he been afforded such an opportunity. He recognizes that systemic inequalities can turn human shortcomings into disastrous behavior patterns.

The letter writer insists that his cards are already dealt and AZ need not worry for his condition. He speaks with a formality that suggests he has rejected the illusory casual freedom of lawlessness that got him into this mess, but also that he is still learning to confront his demons directly and honestly. This stoic outlook belies the writer’s pain precisely because his calm temperament is incongruous with describing the trauma of arrest and imprisonment. As the writer rattles off a modern Book of Job narrative of sin, treachery, tragedy, and estrangement, AZ recognizes shades of his own conflicted self.

As a hustler, AZ has lost friends to death and friendships to betrayal, and come close to falling into financial and moral ruination. As an artist he is committed to ethics that the marketplace does not reward. He dispassionately reports the realities of criminal behavior in the vague hope of possibly reforming the attitudes of “a lost population of men.” He has not gone Hollywood, his burdens are real. AZ’s correspondence with this inmate resonates with us because in rappers we can sometimes sense shades of the lost young men we encounter in our lives; their frustration seethes under a veneer of cool even after they have elected to walk a straighter path.

The second letter is sent from Nashville by a woman named Camille. AZ’s girlfriend is still focused on her task, so he moves right into Camille’s letter. We learn that she is a clever but sweet young mother; her warm, personable country manner shines through AZ’s regimented polysyllabic rhymes. She also invokes a playing cards metaphor, noting that “a real card player rarely reveals his hand.” Instead of a veiled statement of resignation it is a friendly bit of advice that validates AZ’s strategy to stack ends quietly by staying true to his artistic vision. She is AZ’s favorite kind of fan, one that can teach him a thing or two about his own thought process.

The card metaphor is also an espousal of her own day to day persistence: she glides through the mundane activities of motherhood with poise and joy, bumping AZ while washing dishes or grooming her young son’s hair. But just as soon as we get used to the idea that she is self-reliant and tough, we learn that she is a grieving widow and a single mother whose soul mate was killed in a car accident. Her loss is doubly difficult because she is burdened with the responsibility of raising a son who also misses his father. It is a burden she is willing to bear, but AZ is the child of a single mother and knows better than to presume that her demeanor is an exact reflection of her inner life.

Camille confesses to self-medicating her grief-inspired insomnia with weed; her nonchalance assures that her account of being haunted by her husband’s presence is not read as hysteria. Just as AZ’s choice of a sped-up soul sample for backing music hints at mawkish soul-baring without dipping too deeply into that well, his formal rhyme schemes and precisely rhythmic delivery lend a dignfied air to the personal content of both letters. This also lends a measure of authenticity to the song, because both letter writers and AZ himself grapple to some extent with a reluctance to reveal inner emotions.

“Fan Mail” is not prescriptive —everyone involved is in the process of coming to terms with loss and contingency— but it hints at a need for unbridled expression in the face of a “bizarre system” that seems to punish the meek. The second verse fades out before the letter is complete but we are confident that Camille will sort it all out for the better; in AZ she sees a model for positive living  just as the first letter writer sees an exemplar of righteousness. AZ is probably a little struck by the profundity of it all, and not entirely convinced that he has risen above the fray,  but he has a rightfully earned meal to savor and more music to make. — Thun

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