Albert “Prodigy” Johnson, one of the great voices from New York’s thug-rap renaissance in the Nineties, died on June 20th at the age of 42. The rapper had a tumultuous upbringing – plagued by sickle cell anemia, depression and a broken family – but, as his lyrics show, he was the type to turn setbacks into triumph. Forming Mobb Deep with Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita as a teenager, the duo recorded one of the most important albums in hip-hop history, 1995’s The Infamous, an album of effortless, cold-blooded raps about street life that replaced gangsta glamor with a flickering black-and-white grit. The group’s influence hit its apotheosis when Mobb Deep-influenced Queens MC 50 Cent sold millions and ultimately signed the group to his G-Unit Records. Though never achieving a Top 40 pop hit on their own, Mobb Deep remained well-respected as they weathered career ups and downs. Prodigy went to prison for 3½ years for gun possession, but upon his release in 2011, he spent his final years as a hip-hop Renaissance Man, writing one of the best rapper autobiographies (My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy), penning a cookbook (Commissary Kitchen: My Infamous Prison Cookbook) and recording with everyone from Childish Gambino to Curren$y to Alchemist’s revolving crew of indie spitters. Here’s 10 essential tracks from a wild and storied career.
Steely, hard, ice-cold and ultraviolent: “Shook Ones (Part II)” was a definitive moment in returning gangsta rap back to New York City’s grittiest, grimiest streets after a pair of summers enjoying the backyard barbeques of Los Angeles. Over a hard breakbeat chopped and pitch-shifted by Havoc, the pair commit lyrical acrobatics with cold-blooded effortlessness. “I remember that clearly. We wrote that in the crib high on drugs,” Prodigy told Complex with a laugh. “Probably weed, probably was some dust in there, mad 40s, getting twisted. That was one of the first ones where we were like, ‘Whoa. This shit is ill. This shit sounds crazy right here. This is some other shit right here, son. This ain’t normal.'” The track’s vivid mix of mean-mugging and emotional weight (“I’m only 19, but my mind is old/And when the things get for real, my warm heart turns cold,” he raps) would influence a generation of rappers. And despite moments as violent as a splatter film, the track would prove durable enough to be tweaked by Mariah Carey, Jordan Knight and even some elements of the Broadway smash Hamilton. C.W.
Prodigy knew how to start a verse with a vivid phrase, and the first bar of “Survival of the Fittest” is perhaps his greatest opening salvo. It’s almost hard to believe that, “There’s a war going on outside no man is safe from” was coined by a Queens rapper in 1995 and not a novelist 50 years earlier. Kanye West tweaks it on “Murder to Excellence,” Cam’ron spins it on “Welcome to New York City,” Jay Z borrows it on “A Ballad for the Fallen Soldier” and even N.E.R.D. shouts it on “Don’t Worry About It.”
Mobb Deep’s “Eye for an Eye” connects three foundational pillars of New York street rap in the middle of the Nineties. It features guest verses by Nas, who dropped Illmatic a year earlier; and Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon, who’d drop his solo debut Only Built 4 Cuban Linx shortly after. This blunt-scented cipher is loaded with lyrical quotables from all four rappers involved, with Prodigy boasting, “I’ll be dipping in a Range Rover/All jeweled like Liberace/You watch me while jakes try to knock me and lock me/But I be on the low sipping Asti Spumante.”
This posse cut was brewed in the Nineties beef-war trenches (note L.L.’s spin on a Biggie song title), where the hottest rappers could dependably bring their A game. Prodigy, whose list of MCs he had grievances with remained huge throughout his career, had been feuding with the track’s opening MC, Keith Murray: The Def Squad rapper thought Mobb Deep dissed him with a joke about “crazy space shit” on The Infamous. It eventually got physical outside legendary NYC rap spot the Tunnel. Here, Prodigy mainly delivers hard boasts, but there are a few moments where he manages to rekindle the beef by taking shots at Murray on the very track he opens (the lines were edited out with noises). In 2012, the lyricists were photographed together, and it appeared everything was water under the Queensbridge. C.W.
1996 found the hip-hop nation consumed in nightmares about the Illuminati, the four horsemen and the New World Order, a horrific vision illustrated in the “Front Lines” video with stormy skies, black and white clips of Adolf Hitler and a crumbling Statue of Liberty. It was all material for Mobb Deep’s gristly stories of Queensbridge street life. “The saga begins … Begin war,” says Prodigy. On his verse, he talks about tapped jaws, blood flooding from eyes and soldiers illuminated like radiation. On a second verse, he calls himself “the heavy metal king,” brags he has “blood on my kicks, shit on my knife,” and says he’s “the phantom of crime rap.” But he doesn’t have to tell you. It’s right in front of eyes. M.R.
On the original mixtape version of this essential moment for Queensbridge thug rap, Stretch Armstrong effectively jacks DJ Pooh’s beat from Tha Dogg Pound’s dis “New York, New York,” and adds a dollop of noise from Marley Marl’s “The Bridge.” Prodigy sings a coldhearted hook inspired by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s seminal “New York, New York,” and underrated Queens hero Tragedy closes with a scalding verse: “Been on this planet for 25 years and still strong/The world’s rotten like the veins in my father’s arm. … Y’all halfway niggas, I’d advise you not to try this.” M.R.
The Alchemist, a young, white producer from Beverly Hills who’d been mentored by Cypress Hill, produced a couple tracks on Mobb Deep’s 1999 album Murda Muzik. But it was his standout work on Prodigy’s first solo album, H.N.I.C, that cemented Alc as the second most important beatmaker in Prodigy’s life – and cemented Prodigy as a solo force to be reckoned with. “Keep It Thoro” was a characteristically ballsy way to kick off P’s solo career, rhyming relentlessly over a chiming piano loop from the 1978 Jack Mayborn track “Disco People” and boasting “heavy airplay all day with no chorus” on a radio single that had a horn break in place of a lyrical refrain.
Mobb Deep began working with producer the Alchemist in 1999, and he became an increasingly influential part of the duo’s music as the year’s progressed. The same year that the duo released Amerikaz Nightmare, the Alchemist unveiled his debut solo album, 1st Infantry. Naturally, Prodigy pulled through for several appearances, both solo and with Havoc. A highlight is the mellow “Hold You Down,” which features R&B duo Nina Sky harmonizing between verses from Prodigy, Illa Ghee and the Alchemist himself, as a chopped Al Kooper sample holds everything down. The uplifting song carries a message of loyalty and companionship, and Prodigy reflects on the lives of friends lost to violence. B.S.
As a kid, Havoc had been a huge fan of Thomas Dolby’s campy Eighties hit “She Blinded Me With Science.” The Alchemist turned its creepy synths into a nightmarish beat for the forthright, hard-hitting “Got It Twisted.” The first single off Mobb Deep’s 2004 album Amerikaz Nightmare has the duo “going at the ladies, going at the fake-ass [rappers] out there,” as Prodigy told MTV in an interview around the time of the song’s release. The late rapper’s verse is particularly vicious and violent, leaving no room for unresolved beefs. “You being manslaughtered right in front of my kids/A little blood get on my daughter, it’s nothing, she’ll live.”
Terrific New York chroniclers like Ka and Roc Marciano would sound very different if not for Prodigy’s influence. His 2007 album with the Alchemist, Return of the Mac, set the template for pairing grimy, half-whispered crime raps with barely-there loops. Arriving at a moment when New York rap seemingly waned amidst a renaissance in the South, Return of the Mac proved that the city could sustain aesthetic brilliance no matter how its artists fared on the charts. The project’s centerpiece is “Mac 10 Handle,” where Prodigy takes inspiration from Scarface’s intro on “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” and then subverts it. “I sit alone in my dirty-ass room staring at candles, high on drugs/All alone with my hand on my Mac 10 handle, scheming on you niggas.” Despite the customary bravado, he conveys a sense of desperation. M.R.