Prodigy, of Mobb Deep, is dead. The exact details of his death weren’t available at press time, but the respected 42-year-old rapper had been hospitalized in Las Vegas after suffering a crisis related to sickle cell anemia, which had afflicted him since birth.
If it turns out that he passed away due to complications from the painful disease, the right way to look at it is that Prodigy conquered a debilitating sickness for over four decades and did it on his own terms. That’s the kind of man he was—for him, obstacles were meant to be obliterated.
It’s the same tenacity that he brought to his pen game. Blessed with one of the sharpest minds in rap music, or “blood sport” as he preferred to call it, the man born Albert Johnson wrote concise, compact stanzas and delivered them with menacing intent. He’d break down words and opponents in a cold blooded manner not unlike a professional assassin. The Mobb Deep motto—“Survival of the fit, only the strong survive”—should be one all MCs aspire to.
Prodigy drew inspiration from his illness. Along with rhyme partner Havoc, Mobb Deep posed with sickles on the cover of their debut 1993 LP, Juvenile Hell, and in the video for “Peer Pressure,” in what could be interpreted as a symbolic and creative nod to P’s ailment.
“I used to be cold and emotionless. I believe the disease I was born with, sickle-cell anemia, made me that way,” he wrote in the preface to his 2011 autobiography, My Infamous Life.
That attitude is evident in his often threatening lyrics, which could be super calculated—the most infamous being the Mike Tyson-esque line: “Rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone”—or just casually tossed off, like the out-of-nowhere moment on “Keep It Thoro” from his first solo album, H.N.I.C., when he raps, “I throw a TV at you crazy.”
On a musical level, sickle cell made him bulletproof. Rivals couldn’t harm or even unnerve P. This rap shit was nothing. He had dealt with real pain his entire life.
Hailing from Hempstead, Long Island, but reppin’ Queensbridge to the fullest, Prodigy was the epitome of hardcore New York City rap in the ‘90s. Mobb Deep’s music was custom fit for Timbs and hoodie season all the way up to those hot and dangerous summer nights in the projects. But the Mobb’s talents also resonated to the West Coast and beyond. The world appreciated Havoc’s booming beats and Prodigy’s unique style and flow, characterized by rhythms and patterns that no one has been able to successfully duplicate. And even away from the microphone, P’s distinct way of talking, sounding like he’d been up for three straight days chain-smoking and trying to unravel global conspiracy theories (his “Illuminati want my mind, soul and my body” line, off LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya” remix, is one of rap’s first references to the secret society), had a way of pulling you in. Just listening to P speak in skits and interviews had you stuck off the realness for real. Mobb Deep’s use of slang that originated from their Queensbridge clique, and which P christened the “dunn language,” was another thing that set the duo apart from other rappers and endeared them to fans.
Based on his tough-as-nails street image, it might have been surprising to learn that Prodigy came from a cultured and musical family: his grandfather was a notable jazz musician and his mother a singer in the girl group the Crystals. But P was seemingly influenced by his father as well, a man who had his own run-ins with the law while P was growing up.
Prodigy and Havoc were still teenagers when they entered the recording industry. Then known as Poetical Prophets, they were featured in the buzzworthy Unsigned Hype column in the July 1991 issue of The Source. Later, as Mobb Deep, they made good on their early promise, releasing at least two classic albums, The Infamous (1995) and Hell On Earth (1996), in a long career that saw the duo overcome some personal differences in 2012.
Prodigy also released several solo albums, including the underrated Return of the Mac (2007) produced entirely by the Alchemist, with whom he had a close creative kinship.
Mobb Deep’s approach to music privileged rapping above everything else, with long, verse-like hooks (“Drop a Gem on ‘Em”). Their classic “Shook Ones Pt. II” is one of the greatest songs the genre ever produced, and captured the essence of just how grimy New York rap from that era could be. If it’s not on your Top 10, then your list is suspect.
As far as P’s own legacy, he had the balls to battle heavyweights like Jay Z, 2Pac, and Tha Dogg Pound. In today’s era, when rappers go to great lengths to avoid out-and-out beef and the naming of names, P’s refusal to back down from no one should be admired. People will say Jay Z got him bad with the 2001 Summer Jam stunt and the embarrassing childhood photo of P dressed very Michael Jackson-ish at his grandmother’s dance studio. But you know what? He took his lumps, fired back, and kept going. Far more telling than some photograph taken of him as a kid is that Prodigy often rapped about his poor health conditions, but he never once came off as somebody begging for sympathy.
It’s also worth noting that the Prodigy that reemerged from prison in 2011 (he served three years for criminal possession of a firearm) benefited from some soul searching while locked up.
“My mind, body, and soul are in excellent condition now,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I’ve never felt so invigorated.”
This rebirth resulted in a more positive and forward-thinking Prodigy, one who put out a humanity-minded prison cookbook, Commissary Kitchen, last year. "This book won't make you a better cook, but it might make you a better person,” he wrote. This was a man who had outlived the “trife life” and seemed more willing to help others, a far cry from his perilous earlier days. His disease and its pain shaped him, but as long as he lived it never broke him as a person.
Rest in power, P.