In the pantheon of 1990s East Coast hip-hop, Mobb Deep never became quite the household name that Biggie, Jay-Z, Nas, or the Wu-Tang Clan did, but when it came to artistry and influence, the Queens duo stood shoulder-to-shoulder with all of them. Tuesday, one half of Mobb Deep, the rapper born Albert Johnson but known to the world as Prodigy, died in Las Vegas at the age of 42. (The precise cause of death is unknown at the time of this writing, but he had recently been hospitalized for complications from sickle cell anemia, a disease he had fought since birth.) He lived a life marked by pain and complexity that saw him become one of the great songwriters of his era.
Prodigy and Havoc (born Kejuan Muchita) formed Mobb Deep before they were old enough to drive, springing from the same Queensbridge Houses that birthed the Juice Crew and Nas himself. During the mid-1990s, when New York City reclaimed its birthright as the center of the hip-hop universe, Mobb Deep brought an unprecedented sort of psychological verisimilitude to hardcore rap, crafting music that was cinematic in its ambition, its scope, its vividness of feeling. Havoc handled the lion’s share of production, whereas Prodigy was responsible for many—though certainly not all—of the duo’s most memorable verses. Unlike other influential MC partnerships that functioned as a sort of yin-and-yang—Chuck and Flav, Dre and Snoop, Tip and Phife, Ghostface and Raekwon—Prodigy and Havoc seemed to share a brain, their tracks often feeling more like seamless collaborations than parrying back-and-forths. But Prodigy was Mobb Deep’s lyrical mastermind, the architect of a vocal and verbal style that had no real comparison among his contemporaries. He eschewed the party-starting charisma of Biggie and the verbose showmanship of Nas for a terse, impressionistic style, full of rhymed aphorisms that were drenched in evocation and implication, all delivered in a matter-of-fact but imposing bravado.
Mobb Deep’s catalog boasts a wealth of greatness, but anyone looking for a diving-in point should start with 1995’s The Infamous, the group’s sophomore LP, which is one of the best albums of the 1990s and one of the very best hip-hop albums ever made. The Infamous is 22 years old and still sounds like something from another world, simultaneously cutting-edge and ancient, like spending an hour in a haunted house. Assembled from creaky and austere jazz and R&B samples dropped over bludgeoning drum loops, Mobb Deep’s music was undeniably violent, although in a vastly different mode than the SoCal gangsta rap of the early 1990s, to say nothing of the bang-them-shits-with-a-spiked-fuckin’-bat antics of Prodigy and Havoc’s crosstown colleagues. In Prodigy’s lyrics violence existed in a perpetual dialectic, the line between defense and aggression constantly shifting and straddled. Mobb Deep’s singular triumph was their ability to make songs about violence that doubled as songs about fear, a groundbreaking (and frankly, brave) concession for a hardcore rap group to make.
Take the opening lines of “Survival of the Fittest,” the third track off The Infamous: “There’s a war going on outside no man is safe from/ You could run, but you can’t hide forever/ From these streets that we done took/ You’re walking with your head down, scared to look.” This is dense and dazzling writing, from the oblique syntax of the first line, to the indeterminacy of the “you” in the second (is this the generic you or direct address?), which is then seemingly resolved by the “we” in the third line. But then the fourth line switches it up again, fear projected upon the listener while the vividness of the description suggests the speaker protests too much, as does the musical backdrop—a logy, lachrymose sample of the opening notes of Al Cohn and the Barry Harris Trio’s “Skylark.” This suspicion is confirmed later in the same verse with the searing couplet, “New York got a n—a depressed/ so I wear a slug-proof underneath my Guess,” a bracing invocation of depression as a sort of euphemistic catch-all for terror, anger, and hopelessness, all wrought by a fundamental and iterative violence.
Fear is also the subject of The Infamous’ most famous track, “Shook Ones Pt. II,” which is also the most famous track in Mobb Deep’s catalogue. “Shook Ones Pt. II” is a perfect recording, and for my money the most compelling and sophisticated exploration of fear in all of hip-hop, if not all of music. The song’s backdrop, constructed by Havoc, is a masterpiece of spartan seduction, cobbled together from little more than a chilling instrumental shriek plucked from the middle of Quincy Jones’ “Kitten with a Bent Frame,” a drum part looped from the opening seconds of the Daly-Wilson Big Band’s “Dirty Feet,” and most centrally, a detuned and chopped-to-death sample of Herbie Hancock’s “Jessica” that’s so twisting in its complexity that it took 16 years for a worldwide community of sample-sleuths to decipher it.
There’s not a single false step in “Shook Ones Pt. II,” from the song’s opening dedication (“to all the killers and the hundred-dollar billers”) to the final bars of Havoc’s closing verse, which include the incredible line “as long as I’m alive/ I’mma live illegal,” the rare hip-hop lyric that looks as cool on the page as it sounds on the record. But Prodigy is the star of the show, his opening verse sliding between aggressive menace (“rock you in the face/ stab your brain with your nose bone”) and chilly resignation (“when things get for real/ my warm heart turns cold/another n—a deceased/ another story gets told”). Even seemingly tossed-off asides at the end of lines drip with implication: “Cowards like you just get their whole body laced up/with bullet holes and such.” And such. Or, a few bars later: “So I can get my mind off these yellow-backed n—as/ why they still alive? I don’t know, go figure.” And of course a litany of aphorisms that have circulated endlessly throughout rap over the years, through samples and allusions: “I’m only 19, but my mind is old,” “gettin’ closer to God in a tight situation,” “ain’t no such thing as halfway crooks.”
The legacy of “Shook Ones Pt. II” is staggering: More than 20 years after its release, it’s come to reside as arguably the most powerful aural synecdoche of hardcore authenticity in the hip-hop genre. The climactic battle sequence at the end of 8 Mile features Eminem’s Rabbit humiliating Papa Doc over the “Shook Ones” beat, proving his bona fides within the narrative of the film; in 2013, Kendrick Lamar bodied Drake over the song’s strains in a show-stopping freestyle at the BET Hip-Hop Awards.
Legacies built on claims to authenticity are complicated, confused, and often burdensome things, though, and Mobb Deep’s was no exception. For starters, Prodigy and Havoc themselves weren’t exactly central-casting gangsters: Both attended New York’s prestigious High School of Art and Design, a school whose alumni include Calvin Klein, Amy Heckerling, Fab Five Freddy, and Marc Jacobs. And the literalist fantasies that Mobb Deep’s fans sometimes (mis)took from their music may have obscured some of the very real pain behind it. In a 2013 interview, Prodigy spoke about the anger in his music being an artistic release for the anger he felt toward his body and the disease that often ravaged it throughout his life.
Mobb Deep made a lot of excellent music after The Infamous—the follow-up, 1996’s Hell on Earth, is nearly as great as its predecessor, while 1999’s Murda Muzik became their first (and only) platinum album, and in 2014 the group released The Infamous Mobb Deep, a double album made up of one disc of new material and one disc of outtakes and unreleased tracks from the original Infamous sessions. In 2007, Prodigy collaborated with the Alchemist to release Return of the Mac, the best work he’d done in years, but the renaissance was derailed when he was sentenced to three years in prison on a weapons charge. During his time away, he undertook writing an acclaimed autobiography as well as a striking six-page letter to Esquire writer Stephen Marche that proved his ferocious intellect was unhindered by his incarceration. He was an artist of rare and unusual dimensions, and he’s gone far too soon. Listening today to “Survival of the Fittest,” only the title rings hollow.