Albert Johnson, the man forever known best as the rapper Prodigy, died yesterday at the age of 42, but anyone who remembers his lyrics would be hard pressed not to know that death had long been familiar to him. Even had Johnson not long suffered from the sickle cell anemia that finally killed him, there had never been a way to avoid awareness of the end: Mobb Deep, the Queensbridge duo composed of Prodigy and the producer-rapper Havoc, built a reputation on hard-core hip-hop that refused to state anything beyond the bare facts of being young, poor, male, and black in urban America. Armed robberies, crew vendettas, police oppression, frequent imprisonment, and the proximity of death dominate the stories told in The Infamous and Hell on Earth, and these harsh elements are presented in a tone that viewed consolation and distraction with relentless, silent contempt.
The strange thing about Mobb Deep was that its music managed, without resorting to dishonesty or even distortion, to make a cold and cruel reality not only visible and compelling but beautiful and noble as well. Prodigy and Havoc never present themselves as heroes; valor is a luxury they can’t afford, and they know it. They just narrate what happens to them as it happens, but the unwavering sufficiency of their language to the things it describes was a reflection of a refusal to crack under any circumstance. Aside from Havoc’s masterful production, the genius of Mobb Deep lay in depictions of the world whose clarity and simplicity was that of bravery.
They lacked status, safety, heat, and money, but you could hear indestructible dignity in their words regardless. They weren’t the good guys — just a pair of skinny hoods of below-average height with a 50-50 chance of getting rocked in any fight, as Prodigy readily acknowledged on “The Infamous Prelude” — but in the face of what amounted to a permanent worst-case scenario, they were as best prepared as they could be to confront it. If that meant risking death and threatening death, then death would have to be risked and threatened.
Now run for your life, or you want to get your heat,
Whatever—we can die together.
Long as I send your maggot ass to the essence
I don’t give a fuck about my presence.
(“Right Back at You”)
When Prodigy’s syllables flowed, they typically did so with a measure of unevenness, like heavy rain rumbling down a cobblestone hill. Few things could be further from the polished virtuosity of Jay-Z, with whom Mobb Deep famously clashed, but then again few things could match Mobb Deep’s language for fidelity to life. Jay-Z exited the beef as famous, prosperous, and healthy as he entered it — it’s something of an ironic coincidence that Prodigy’s death comes shortly after the announcement of the birth of the Brooklyn mogul’s twin daughters and shortly before the release of another one of his records. Yet it’s safe to say that among all the treasures Jay has amassed, one will always elude him: an album that can match The Infamous.
“Cradle to the Grave” is clearly the Infamous cut best suited to the moment. It’s a fearsome track: As Prodigy and Havoc trade verses, they detail an existence entirely without forgiveness, one spent in endless flight from the police, prison, and death: “We born to die, “ Prodigy announces calmly at the end. Encouragement, when it comes, is hard to tell from mourning; the sampled horns and bass line, as if in melancholic sympathy, repeat, respectively, a fading sustenance and an endless descent.
To my peoples locked down coming back to life
In the world once again though your bid was trife:
While you was gone we was going to war, and even more
Saw my man laying dead on the floor.
Yet what’s fearsome from the perspective of art is that the entire album maintains the same level of perfection as “Cradle to the Grave.” There are records that can match The Infamous in quality, but not a single one exceeds it. Though steeped in past, immediate, and imminent death, “Cradle to the Grave,” The Infamous, and the words of Prodigy that persist within them will always live. “Kid, I swore that our crew will live forever, I guess I was wrong,” Prodigy continues on the same verse. But really there’s no time for tears. “No, until we meet again, hold your head and stay strong.” He has to keep going.