R.I.P. Prodigy

Prodigy of Mobb Deep has died at the age of 42. The news began circulating after Nas posted an Instagram memorializing the rapper, and a publicist confirmed the report to XXL. He was found unconscious this morning. Prodigy had been vocal about his struggles with sickle cell anemia throughout his career, though his exact cause of death is unknown at this time. TMZ reports that he was in Vegas this past weekend performing as part of the Art Of Rap tour. [UPDATE: TMZ reports that Prodigy choked on an egg while hospitalized for sickle cell treatments, though it’s still unclear whether the choking directly caused his death.]

Prodigy was born Albert Johnson in Hempstead, New York. He family was full of musicians; his mother Fatima Johnson had been a member of the early-’60s girl group the Crystals. Prodigy was just 17 when he and his friend Kejuan Muchita, better known as Havoc, formed the duo Poetical Prophets. They recorded the demo tape Flavor For The Nonbelievers and ended up in the Unsigned Hype column in The Source. In 1993, they changed their name to Mobb Deep and released the debut album Juvenile Hell.

The Infamous
Looking back at Mobb Deep's classic debut.

In 1995, Mobb Deep released their album The Infamous, one of the all-time immortal classics of scorched-earth New York rap. It’s a dark, cold, chilling album, and it gets much of its power from Prodigy’s wizened, grim delivery. Still a teenager, Prodigy came off like a weary gunslinger, dispensing gory and specific threats with a seen-it-all shrug: “For all those who wanna profile and pose / Rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nosebone.” Their breakout single “Shook Ones Pt. 2″ is an absolutely perfect song, a masterpiece of evocative, atmospheric street-rap.

The Infamous featured appearances from New York peers like Nas, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, and Q-Tip. It went gold, immediately establish Mobb Deep as a duo near the pinnacle of New York rap when it was in arguably its greatest period. Mobb Deep went on to release the nearly-as-great Hell On Earth in 1996. They feuded with 2Pac and Snoop Dogg, and they worked with many of the greatest artists of their era. And in the late-’90s jiggy era, Mobb Deep continued to thrive, going platinum with the mean, intense Murda Muzik LP and dominating clubs with the dark-hearted single “Quiet Storm.”

Prodigy released the solo album H.N.I.C. in 2000, but his career hit a serious roadblock when Jay-Z dissed Mobb Deep on “Takeover” and showed a photo of Prodigy, dressed for dance class, on the big screen at Hot 97’s Summer Jam concert. Mobb Deep soldiered on, going gold with their Infamy album in 2001 and coming close with the 2004 album Americaz Nightmare.

In 2006, Mobb Deep signed on with 50 Cent’s G-Unit label and released the ill-received Blood Money album. But in 2007, Prodigy bounced back with Return Of The Mac, a truly great independent album recorded entirely with producer the Alchemist, using mostly samples of ’70s soul and funk. With it, he made dark, disturbing bloody videos that existed entirely for YouTube, rather than for broadcast, a novel thing at the time. Return Of The Mac wasn’t a commercial success, but it established that Prodigy was still a powerful voice. Unfortunately, later that year, Prodigy was arrested for criminal possession of a weapon, and he served three and a half years in prison.

During his imprisonment, Prodigy released one more solo album. Upon his release, he released four more in two years. He also published his memoir My Infamous Life, one of the all-time great rap books. In 2012, Mobb Deep broke up after Havoc tweeted derogatory comments about Prodigy, later claiming that his account had been hacked. But Mobb Deep reunited in 2014, releasing their final album The Infamous Mobb Deep. In the past few years, they’ve been touring steadily.

Mobb Deep were, at their peak, a perfect rap group, a uniquely bleak and powerful unit who made magnetic music without doing anything to clean their sound up or make it friendly for a mainstream audience. (Kanye West famously hung a “What Would Mobb Deep Do?” sign on his studio wall when he was recording My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.) Prodigy was famously short, as was Havoc; the first time I saw Mobb Deep, I was pressed right up against the stage, and even standing on stage, both of those guys were shorter than me. (I’m tall.) But even at that show — an in-store at a Manhattan record store, in the middle of the day — they both came across as titans, as these vast personalities in small bodies. I interviewed Prodigy about a decade ago, and while he didn’t say much that day, he had presence. He music had presence, too. Below, watch some of his videos.