Men lie, women lie, and money allows you to lie even easier, but poverty doesn’t lie. And Mobb Deep represents poverty. My plan was to literally rage against the machine. — Albert ‘Prodigy’ Johnson, My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy (with Laura Checkoway)
One of Prodigy’s most compelling traits as a rapper has always been his subtle volatility. He delivers his smoky brogue, bent at 45-degree angles by a Queensbridge accent and dialect, in unfailingly smooth tandem with the beat. But his lyrics generally bite and snarl, built on tension, street tales and veiled shots. In Mobb Deep raps, the sun may not come out tomorrow. As Prodigy observes in the duo’s most famous track, “Shook Ones Pt. II,” I’m only nineteen but my mind is old/ and when the things get for real my warm heart turns cold.
Prodigy is a New York treasure, both in his talents — he’s easily one of the top rappers and lyricists the city has ever produced — and in the way his life reflects the city’s narrative. His excellent new autobiography, released last month, sheds light on both the grit that shaped him and his own personal golden era of rap, when Jay-Z was still beefing with Nas and independent record labels released the best albums out. Mobb Deep fans will recognize the generally poverty-wrought tales of robbery, stick-ups, and other bad behavior in the Queensbridge Projects, 41st side, during the ’80s and ’90s, when the entirety of New York still had its cockles up. But a far larger spectre looms over the book: Prodigy’s devastating sickle cell anemia, which has afflicted him his entire life. He’s a diminuitive man, small in stature, but he’s always had an intimidating demeanor — an attractive face with a permanent scowl embedded in it. As he writes in My Infamous Life, dealing with the pain associated with the disease shaped him to be “one moody motherfucker.”
And arguably, it’s what shaped him to be a great rapper, a man who can believably encapsulate pain, whether his own or that of his enemies. One of the best rap videos of the early oughties was “Mac 10 Handle,” off Prodigy’s solo album HNIC Pt. II. Though at the time Mobb Deep was signed to G-Unit Records, the chorus was not exactly a 50 Cent-style pop banger. In homage to the Geto Boys, he rapped in a guttural cadence, I sit alone in my dirtyass room staring at candles/ high on drugs. Grimy and filmed with acute visual detail — including a quick shot with several votive candles sitting inside an empty pizza box — it was the story of a man on the verge of some sort of destructive breakdown, paranoia, and retaliation on his tongue. The lyrics were homicidal, but with P sweating and boozing in a lone freakout, there was also a distinct suicide vibe emanating from the clip. Crazed from a deadly combination of drug abuse and vengeance lust, the video was filmically terrifying, and it turned out to be one of the first really important viral rap videos in an age when YouTube was just a baby. You could almost smell the sweat, whiskey, and rank mustiness in the room where Prodigy looked like he’d been holed up for weeks, tweaking out. In the parlance of New York grit, it felt more 1978 than 2008 — but that was a testament to Prodigy’s permanence, longevity, and icon status.
Yet nearly 20 years since Mobb Deep’s inchoate first album Juvenile Hell, Prodigy truly seems like a new man. In early March, he was released from New Jersey’s Mid-State Correctional Facility on good behavior after serving three years for gun possession charges. (While Prodigy expresses remorse for his behavior, he also reminds us that his case was a banner one in furthering the evidence of New York’s ‘Hip Hop Cops,’ aka a special NYPD Task Force created especially to target and imprison rappers.) He’s been on a low-key but effective media blitz since his release, promoting his book and solid new mixtape, the Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP, downloadable for free here. At a recent appearance at Powerhouse Stadium, Prodigy seemed almost gentle. Though traces of the frown were there, here a man who’s clearly reflected on his life and, even if in some small way, has come to peace with it. He elaborated on some of the lighter aspects of his book — clubbing at Bungalow 8 with Lindsey Lohan! Seeing a UFO hovering above his crib! — but the most intimate points were the ones that stuck. He detailed his decision never to wear the diamonds, chains, or gold of his youth after realizing it contradicted the people he wanted to represent; he spoke movingly about telling his children that he was going away for a bit. All the while, the signature gravel in his voice rumbled. It was real — and that’s all we’ve ever wanted from him.