I believe that rappers know something the rest of us don’t. They think and work too quickly. They rise and fall too sharply. They see too many sides of too many different people. They’re frequently wise beyond their years and, almost uniformly, delightfully strange, as anyone lucky enough to gain an audience with one would attest. It’s as if they’ve been presented with a cheat code to the natural systems of life.
I believe the reason that hip-hop broke out of the New York inner city specifically is that we grew up both disadvantaged and resourceful. Left with bubblegum and bottle tops, we came out with skelly. A mop and a tennis ball made stickball. Presented with the challenge of growing up in a grid of active gangs, overzealous police, and leveled city streets, the first rappers, breakers, and DJs simply burrowed a new way out. You can hold the hood back for awhile, but it’ll eventually just slip around you.
Mobb Deep’s Havoc and Prodigy made survival anthems for forgotten people. The projects were a trap no one escaped without losing something, be it friends, family, blood, or innocence. Death was ever-present in the music because it was easy to lose your life in that old, crusty, hateful NYC. Death was real as pissy elevators and bodega loosies, even to kids, which is frankly what P and Hav still were when they made their 1995 classic The Infamous. Their paranoia was not a put-on; it was PTSD.
Still, there’s something terrifying about the mix of youthfulness and bare viciousness at play in the shootouts and sting operations of songs like “Trife Life.” The potency and clarity of the telling arose from straightforward rhyme patterns and unshowy wordplay. All of this made Mobb Deep’s music seem chilling, methodical. P and Hav were nothing like the boisterous word athletes of the late ’80s or the dapper showmen of the late ’90s. Their stories were hard enough to hook without flash. Rare is the rapper who knows not to crowd a good line. Mobb Deep had this figured out before either member hit drinking age.
Complicating matters for Prodigy was a sickle cell anemia diagnosis, which sent him into the insides of hospitals the way his work sent him into nightclubs and concert stages. The disease creates misshapen, sickle-shaped blood cells that deprive the body of oxygen and result in symptoms ranging from chronic pain to immune-system deficiency. The adversity rendered the rapper open and vulnerable, preternaturally aware of his limitations but doggedly determined to overcome, or at least circumvent, them. Sickle cell assaulted his aspirations from an early age and came back frequently and unexpectedly, like a hero’s hateful, inescapable nemesis.
P used music to spell out the tough realities of living with his condition. “Sedated with morphine as a little kid,” he rapped on H.N.I.C.’s “You Can Never Feel My Pain,” “I built a tolerance for drugs, addicted to the medicine.” Familiarity with pharmaceuticals led to abuse. Pain led to depression and self-medication. The cocktail of hurt and recklessness nudged Prodigy into numerous arrests throughout the 2000s, although the more scandalous portions of his 2011 tell-all My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy suggest he’d gotten away with more bending the law than he ever went down for.
My Infamous Life also celebrated Mobb Deep’s tenure as a peculiar rap superpower. The duo was too gritty to ever be the biggest rap act in the city, but the same quality that limited its chart traction made it an appealing target for artists looking to challenge New York’s rap-industry primacy, or else to steal control of it. Mobb Deep played notable roles in a few of the great rap wars of the ’90s and ’00s. 2pac made fun of Prodigy’s sickle cell in the Biggie diss “Hit ’Em Up,” and the group struck back with “Drop a Gem on ’Em,” a savage reply Pac wouldn’t live long enough to hear. When Snoop kicked the Twin Towers down in tha Dogg Pound’s “New York, New York,” the Mobb struck back on Capone-N-Noreaga’s “LA, LA.”
Jay-Z’s famed Nas attack “Takeover” contained a whole verse directed at P. If it seemed like Jay got the upper hand in the squabble, after digging up an old picture of a young Prodigy dressed as Michael Jackson and projecting it on the Hot 97 Summer Jam stage to use Prodigy as bait for Nas, consider that P liked to press his target behind the scenes as much as he ever did on wax. He famously cornered Jay in a club in My Infamous Life as their battle raged, and won an uneasy truce, snarking, “I could have changed Jay’s future that night, but I chose not to.”
Prodigy’s moves as his spotlight waned are just as cunning as his maneuvers in the clutch. He wasn’t the first rapper to engage internet and mixtape culture, but he was one of the early few to crash-land on a comfortable indie-rap twilight after his fruitful major-label run began to fizzle out. 2007’s Return of the Mac album with producer and Mobb Deep affiliate the Alchemist, and its 2013 follow-up Albert Einstein showcased a knack for no-bullshit street rap unblemished by the passage of time. It’s a path followed by scores of New York City rap vets stuck in a holding pattern where the glory days seem over but the skills that earned their audience still linger. You can see P’s DNA in the continued success of smart indie scribes like Roc Marciano and Ka.
Most rap fans believe that the natural trajectory of a solid career in hip-hop arcs downward; you start out at the crest of a wave and keep treading water until you’re sunk. The last decade of Prodigy solo outings suggest that his route was a sine wave. He struck hard and heavy when he was hot and eased off when things got sluggish. Early on in the hot streak that would prove to be his last, P told Complex, “By the time you turn around, I’ll have about five or six albums out by the middle of this year. It’s going to happen so fast that people are not even going to understand what’s going on. They’re not going to realize what happened till years later.”
The same is true of his early embrace of the loose network of blogs that sprung up covering rap music in the mid-2000s. Prodigy’s guest blogs and prison letters in 2008 and beyond show what a colorful character he was as much as any piece of music could. His rant about bats infesting the Mid-State Correctional Facility runs the same balance of frayed sanity and grisly humor as his records: “IT LOOKS LIKE AN ABANDONED HORROR JAIL. IT’S REAL FOUL LOOKING. YOU CAN ASK ANYBODY THAT COMES OUT FROM A VISIT. THIS PRISON LOOKS HAUNTED.” P’s rants covered everything from sketchy theories on Jay-Z being a cult member to lucid gripes about black representation in Hollywood (“NAME A BLACK CHARACTER IN ANY CLASSIC WALT DISNEY STORY? SHIT YOU CAN’T EVEN SEE A BLACK EXTRA UNLESS IT’S A MAID OR BUTLER.”) with the same gruff, world-weary suspicion that made him rap “Illuminati want my mind, soul, and my body.”
It is perhaps cliché to pay the compliment on the dead that they lived like they knew their time was borrowed, but it’s the core tenet of Prodigy’s music: Something — rivals, illness, America — was out to get him. The life expectancy for the average sickle cell patient hangs under 50 years of age. The disease disproportionately afflicts African-American children. The ghetto is a cage where the cheapest food is the least healthy and the best-paying jobs are fast tracks to prison, where a disproportionate number of black men are subjected to even more bodily harm and poor food options.
It seems like all of the pangs of pain, violence, sickness, and incarceration that made Prodigy’s life a war are threads intertwined, just different manifestations of the same American evil. In a less imperfect world we would use this moment of mourning a legend’s early passing to investigate how we can cease creating the conditions that took him from us. Instead our government is, this very second, toiling away in secret at health-care legislation that asks for higher fees from patients with conditions like sickle cell, a bout of astounding cruelty masquerading as frugal budget management that seems certain to damn more children to more lives of pain and suffering. Like the Queens king said, “Ain’t no such things as halfway crooks.”