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Prodigy: 10 Essential Tracks From the Mobb Deep MC

Rapper Prodigy died at the age of 42, but his legacy of mixing street-level grit with emotional heft lives on

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.

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Mobb Deep, “Front Lines (Hell on Earth)” (1996)

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.

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Tragedy feat. Capone-N-Noreaga and Mobb Deep, “L.A. L.A.” (1996)

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.

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Prodigy, “Keep it Thoro” (2000)

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.

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The Alchemist ft. Prodigy, Nina Sky & Illa Ghee, “Hold You Down” (2004)

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.

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Mobb Deep, “Got It Twisted” (2004)

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.”

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Prodigy, “Mac 10 Handle” (2007)

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.

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