Prodigy slumps in a musty easychair, sweaty and shirtless. The room is dark and dank. Candles burn. A skull sits in a pizza box next to the ignored, rotting remains of a mostly eaten pie. The Hong Kong gunfest Hard-Boiled, the greatest movie that John Woo ever made, plays on a nearby TV, but Prodigy doesn’t really look at it. He chugs liquor straight from the bottle. He picks up a machete, brandishes it, even though he’s by himself. It’s daytime outside, but his blinds are drawn. A cigarette burns between his fingers. He rubs his hands together, then idly cleans the handgun that’s sitting on the cluttered coffee table. Prodigy goes to the bathroom, stares in the mirror, sees the face of the guy he recently shot. He sees the face of the devil. He pulls out that machete, stabs the mirror until it shatters. A snake crawls around the living room. Prodigy stabs his couch, and blood comes out.
A decade ago, I interviewed Prodigy about his “Mac 10 Handle” video. I’d never seen anything like it. Rappers made rap videos so that BET or the MTV Jams channel would play them. Maybe, just maybe, MTV might give them an airing or two late at night. YouTube was only a couple of years old, and while it was already a valuable repository of old videos and grainy rap-battle footage, people weren’t making music videos for YouTube. But Prodigy was. In “Mac 10 Handle,” he and director Dan The Man had made a video full of guns and blood and drugs and atmosphere. I’d never seen anything like it. Not long after seeing it, I interviewed Prodigy, and he told me what he’d told Dan The Man: “I want to be in a room, looking like I’m crazy, mad sweating, weapons all over the place, all kind of crazy shit in the room, I’m looking in the mirror like I see the devil. I want the shit to be psychotic.” And psychotic is exactly what it was.
Prodigy’s career should’ve been over when he made Return Of The Mac, the album that gave us “Mac 10 Handle.” The year before, Mobb Deep, his old and venerable New York rap group, had teamed up with fellow Queens hard-rock 50 Cent’s G-Unit to release Blood Money, and it had resoundingly bricked. On some theoretical level, it made sense for Mobb Deep to team up with G-Unit, the team that was, for the moment, dominating things. They were Karl Malone, moving to the Shaq/Kobe Lakers for one final attempt at a championship run. But G-Unit was an empire in decline, and 50 Cent’s kindergarten-playground hooks and oiled-up videos were not a good match for the most gnarled, intense groups in New York rap history. (The Mobb signed on at the same time as M.O.P., another harder-than-fuck ancestral New York rap duo. M.O.P. never got to release an album on G-Unit, and in retrospect, they got the better deal.) Blood Money seemed to be A&R’ed by record-label execs who’d forgotten that Havoc, one of the all-time great rap producers, was already in Mobb Deep and that they didn’t need to outsource any beats at all. It was a patched-together mess that played against the duo’s strengths and ignored everything that had made them great.
The song that should’ve been the album’s only real redeeming feature was “Pearly Gates,” the one where Prodigy literally curses God for his entire verse: “Now homie, if I go to hell and you make it to the pearly gates / Tell the boss man we got beef / And tell his only son I’ma see him when I see him / And when I see him, I’ma beat his ass like the movie / For leaving us out to dry in straight poverty / For not showing me no signs they watching over me.” When the album came out, Prodigy’s entire verse had been censored.
This was after Mobb Deep had already spent a half-decade reeling from “Takeover” and from Jay-Z’s Summer Jam attack, maybe the most brutal and one-sided career-ending rap feud that the world has ever seen. After Blood Money, Mobb Deep could’ve disappeared completely. Instead, Prodigy went off to the woodshed with the Alchemist and made a masterpiece. Return Of The Mac is a gorgeously rendered piece of bleak, murder-minded New York rap, recorded entirely over probably-uncleared samples of classic blaxploitation themes. This was well-trod ground, but Prodigy and Alchemist made it sound new. “Mac 10 Handle,” for instance, was built on Edwin Starr’s “Easin’ In,” from the Hell Up In Harlem soundtrack. Ice-T and Afrika Islam had sampled that song for Ice-T’s “High Rollers” in 1988, and Irv Gotti and Lil Rob had sampled it for DMX’s “Crime Story” in 1998. But none of them had tapped into the song’s creeping dread the way Prodigy and Alchemist did. They made a goosebumps album, a flickering-flame album, with no audience in mind and no commercial prospects. It didn’t sell. But it did blow minds.
In the grand scheme of Prodigy’s career, Return Of The Mac was just a blip, a footnote. Prodigy was 31 when he made it, and he’s made his real impact when he was only 19 and his mind was old. 1995’s The Infamous, Mobb Deep’s second album, was the group’s great contribution to the world, and it remains a perfect brain-tingling masterpiece of rap music. We think of Nas as being the quintessential ’90s New York rapper, the one whose intricate monotone influenced everyone that came after. But when I think of New York rap, I think of the staggered, marbled, world-weary delivery that Prodigy had perfected before he was legally old enough to buy the Hennessy that he advertised on his T-shirt. Through Havoc’s summer-thunderstorm snares and Prodigy’s all-hope-is-dead delivery, Mobb Deep figured out how to make rap music that made you feel alone in the universe. Everything that came after that was just a bonus. And a lot came after that.
Thinking about Mobb Deep now, in the immediate aftermath of Prodigy’s death, it’s impossible not to think about the effect of sickle cell anemia, the disease that probably took Prodigy’s life at the bafflingly young age of 42. Life fucked Prodigy. Growing up in the Queensbridge projects must’ve been bad enough, but Prodigy also spent an entire lifetime dealing with chronic pain and anemia and swelling and infections. He never spoke much about his illness, but if you’re listening to it, you can hear its effects in his music, and in the worldview that that music presents. There was never any joy in Prodigy’s voice. Even when he was bragging about money or sex, even when he was gloating at the defeat of his enemies, he always did it with a grim flatness and a never-shaken sense of nihilism. “Shook Ones, Pt. 2,” one of the greatest rap songs that will ever exist, was about fear and about the rare condition where that fear disappears. And when you’re facing constant, unending physical pain, what is there to be afraid of?
Prodigy did a lot in his life. He rapped over samples of Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” and Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine.” He brought paranoiac the-Illuminati-is-out-to-get-you tropes to rap. He feuded with an entire coast, and with fellow New Yorkers like Jay and Nas and Keith Murray. He feuded, briefly but bitterly, with Havoc, the other guy in Mobb Deep, and then he reunited with him and spent his final years touring hard. (At various points, I saw Mobb Deep perform in a record store, on a dirt-floor bar patio, and in a football stadium.) He briefly made it cool to call everyone “dun.” He supplied Eminem with the big, climactic singalong line in the final 8 Mile battle. He spent years in prison on what sure seemed like a trumped-up weapons charge. He wrote three books — a memoir, a crime novel, and a prison cookbook. He wrote the greatest rap blog post of all time. And he sounded like he enjoyed none of it. You can’t make an album like The Infamous — or even like Return Of The Mac — unless you are in conversation with some of the darkest parts of your soul. And maybe he’s at peace now. I hope he’s at peace now. Or, failing that, I hope he’s in heaven, beating up Jesus.
1. Mobb Deep – “Quiet Storm”
2. Mobb Deep – “Survival Of The Fittest”
3. Prodigy – “Keep It Thoro”
4. LL Cool J – “I Shot Ya (Remix)” (Feat. Keith Murray, Prodigy, Fat Joe, & Foxy Brown)
5. Capone-N-Noreaga – “LA, LA” (Feat. Mobb Deep & Tragedy Khadafi)
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— Gene Demby (@GeeDee215) June 20, 2017