When Kanye West was recording My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in Hawaii, he famously hung a sign on the studio wall that read “What would Mobb Deep do?” That means Kanye wanted people like Justin Vernon and Rick Ross to put themselves in the same mindset of two teenage Queensbridge hyenas, young geniuses at the art of coming up with evocative ways to threaten death. Kanye’s trick worked. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sound basically nothing like anything Mobb Deep ever made, but there’s a pervading darkness to the album, a sense of atmosphere. That was Mobb Deep’s gift to the world. They weren’t rule-breakers or iconoclasts. They were working very much within the New York rap tradition that birthed them, and their innovations were mostly cosmetic things, like calling everyone “dun.” They weren’t always dazzling lyricists, the way collaborators like Nas and Raekwon were. But they perfected the art of mood, of creating an apocalyptic sense of place. They did world-creation as well as anyone else in rap history, effectively depicting their native Queensbridge projects as a broken Darwinian landscape where the weak had no hope of survival. And with The Infamous, their second album and the greatest thing they would ever do, they conjured a sense of pure bleakness, radiating danger like nobody before or since.
“I’m only 19, but my mind is old,” said Prodigy on “Shook Ones, Pt. II,” one of the greatest rap songs of all time. (Also: “Rock you in ya face, stab ya brain with ya nosebone.” Also: “When the slugs penetrate, you feel a burning sensation.” Really, you should just tattoo that whole verse on your face and be done with it.) It was true: Prodigy’s voice was a grizzled husk even at that young age, and he talked about violence with a sort of deadeyed samurai detachment. He didn’t work to sound menacing. He never shouted. He sounded bored, and tired, which of course made him a whole lot more menacing. When Prodigy talked about getting money, it wasn’t escapist living-large talk; it came off like a simple matter of staying afloat. And while his partner Havoc had more of a nasal chirp, the group dynamic was crucial. These guys projected the idea that they were clinging to each other because that was the only way either one of them was going to make it: “So long as the sunshine could light up the sky / We in this together, son, your beef is mine.” And that togetherness made them volatile. To hear them tell it, any perceived threat could lead to immediate death. And Prodigy’s threats had a chilling specificity to them: “I’m going out blasting, taking my enemies with me / And if not, they scarred, so they will never forget me.”
Havoc produced most of the album, and he had this way of programming drums that made them sound like bones rattling. His work on The Infamous took the dark, brooding styles of producers like DJ Muggs and the RZA and pushed them even further, turning everything but the drums into ghostly flickers. There are plenty of samples on The Infamous, but the brief snatches of melody aren’t what sticks with you. Instead, it’s the elongated, dying piano tones on ‘Survival Of The Fittest,” or the lonely, echoing horn bleats on “Q.U. – Hectic.” “Shook Ones, Pt. II” has one of the all-time great rap intros, with that ticking hi-hat stumbling before starting, those neck-crack snares slowly rolling in, that ghostly little guitar-or-whatever riff. By the time Prodigy’s voice comes in, it’s already goosebump music. There’s no polish to the album, and even big-name guests like Nas and Raekwon and Ghostface Killah sounded like they were jammed into a closet with Havoc and Prodigy, everyone rapping into everyone else’s faces. The Infamous plays out like a symphony of broken pianos and decaying trumpets. Play it on headphones outside at night and the world will start to look like a cold and empty place.
A lot of things had to happen for Mobb Deep to make an album this powerful. Mobb Deep had been around for a few years before The Infamous; legend has it that they met when the tiny Prodigy watched the equally tiny Havoc beat up a kid twice his size. They’d made Juvenile Hell, a relatively sloppy and unfocused debut album that had granted them the chance to work with legends like DJ Premier and Large Professor. Havoc watched them and learned, and he started making his own beats in part because the group couldn’t afford other people’s beats once their first label dropped them. The Infamous owes at least some of its cold, minimal sound to sample-clearance problems; when the group couldn’t afford a certain element of a song, they’d simply take it out. Partly in an act of Queens boosterism, Q-Tip helped the group out, producing one song and co-producing another but also mixing the album and working as a sort of elder advisor. The Wu-Tang Clan came out and carved a commercial lane for eerie, dystopic New York rap. But even if the planets had to align in a certain way to even give The Infamous the chance to be great, the two kids in Mobb Deep had to lock in to each other and to an all-encompassing darkness that no other group has ever quite managed to evoke.
The members of Mobb Deep recorded a whole lot of great music after The Infamous; their 1999 single “Quiet Storm” and Prodigy’s Alchemist-produced 2007 solo album Return Of The Mac are personal favorites. But The Infamous was their lightning-in-a-bottle moment, the one time when everything came together perfectly. Things got messy after that. The next two or three albums were strong, but they didn’t have that same hint of cold desperation. Prodigy and Havoc just weren’t as potent when they were rapping about clothes or shooting videos in the Caribbean. The group’s 2001 feud with Jay-Z did not work out well for them; Jay’s “Takeover” verse almost singlehandedly stalled their commercial momentum. 50 Cent signed them to G-Unit, but that resulted in one flopped album, 2006’s Blood Money. In the mid-’00s commercial rap environment, they just didn’t make sense; the album played to none of their strengths, especially when the group agreed to bleep out Prodigy’s God-dissing verse on “Pearly Gates.” In 2007, Prodigy went off to prison for three and a half years on a gun charge. When he came home, he and Havoc got into a short but strange and ugly feud. It’s been a hard road for the group.
But even if Mobb Deep had ended after The Infamous, or if they’d gone to shit afterward, their legacy would still be secure. The Infamous didn’t push rap forward, exactly, but it did set new standards in unrelenting, single-minded bleakness. It made a certain sort of sense when 50 Cent signed them a decade later, since he almost certainly learned how to make graphic and evocative gun-threats from them. And the group devised a sound so dark that, next month, they’ll be the only non-metal band to play Baltimore’s Maryland Death Fest. Not many things unite 50 Cent and Napalm Death, but Mobb Deep bridged that divide. That takes a deep and powerful level of darkness, and that’s what you’ll hear on The Infamous. Now let’s watch some videos.