There are many contenders when it comes to picking the most New York of New York rap albums. After all, the genre was born in New York and arguably perfected there, in a 40-year lineage that’s gone from two turntables and a microphone plugged into a rigged streetlamp to a multi-billion dollar business. And as it’s evolved, the branches have spread wide, simple bragging over beats growing to include Mafioso stories, convoluted kung-fu mythology, and self-fulfilling prophecies of previously unimaginable wealth. New York has produced countless masters of the genre—from the entire Wu-Tang Clan to Jay-Z and Biggie and Nas to Long Island’s Public Enemy and De La Soul. It also produced Mobb Deep, the Queensbridge duo of Havoc and Prodigy, whose 1995 sophomore effort, The Infamous may be the most New York rap album of all.
The Infamous is a cold and unforgiving record, Havoc’s forbidding beats set off by Prodigy’s chilly opening verses. Havoc brought it lyrically as well—his “no matter how much loot I get I’m staying in the projects, forever” from “Survival of the Fittest” defined Mobb Deep’s worldview in one line—but Prodigy, who died Tuesday at the age of 42, set the tone on their biggest cuts. His opening lines were some of rap’s best: “I got you stuck off the realness, we be the infamous/You heard of us, official Queensbridge murderers” on “Shook Ones, Pt. II,” or “There's a war goin' on outside no man is safe from/You could run, but you can't hide forever/From these streets that we done took/You walkin' with your head down, scared to look, you shook/‘Cause ain't no such things as halfway crooks” on “Survival of the Fittest.”
Both Prodigy and Havoc had been through some things before The Infamous dropped, having recorded first as the Poetical Prophets and released their debut as Mobb Deep, Juvenile Hell, in 1993. An aptly named album in every regard, Juvenile Hell sounds now like an attempt to fit into the rap world as it was in the early ‘90s, complete with beats from DJ Premier and Large Professor. It doesn’t particularly stand out or hold up. The Infamous stripped away all excess, leaving the duo to stand on their own two (with help from Q-Tip). The Infamous doesn’t sound like Juvenile Hell. It doesn’t sound much like anything that came before, its slowed-down, flipped, and chopped-up beats as coldly impersonal as Prodigy and Havoc’s rhymes, both crafted with the same meticulous care.
That level of care did not seem to spill over into their lives. While peers like Nas and Jay-Z and Biggie seemed to consider a life of drugs and violence to be a means to an end, a way to escape to bigger and better things, Prodigy and Havoc on The Infamous treated life in the hood as the end itself. They were only 19 and 20, respectively, but seemed much older, veterans of a war they never asked to be part of. “It's similar to Vietnam/Now we all grown up and old, and beyond the cops' control” Prodigy said on “Survival of the Fittest.” Or, more directly on “Shook Ones Pt. II”: “I'm only 19, but my mind is old/And when the things get for real, my warm heart turns cold.” No one made life sound more bleak than Mobb Deep. Their best songs were the rap equivalent of an icy wind blowing between apartment blocks. They made fatalistic winter records.
Prodigy’s words, Havoc’s beats. They were young men making music from and about an environment they never thought they’d escape—save via nightly doses of Tanqueray and E&J—resigned to whatever came but determined to survive by any means. They didn’t fantasize much, what was the point? Their world was far removed from the ones pictured by the likes of Lil Yachty or Lil Uzi Vert—just imagine what Prodigy would have done with a line like “all my friends are dead.” There was no mythologizing and nearly no hope, just a clear-eyed view of what was happening in their world, which barely extended beyond the Queensbridge housing projects.
It’s also hard to imagine, looking back, that Prodigy’s lifelong battle with sickle cell anemia didn’t loom behind every line he wrote. He addressed it directly on 2000 solo track “You Can Never Feel My Pain,” but suffering every day from a disease with no cure can’t help but darken your worldview. For him, there literally was no escape, no amount of money or fame that would have magically made everything better. There was nothing to aspire to.
The Infamous set the tone for all that was to follow. While Nas and Jay-Z (and, of course, Puffy) moved on to Bentleys and Benzes, yachts and Cristal, all the trappings of wealth, Mobb Deep did—lyrically, at least—stay in the projects, forever. Later records had more features and bigger budgets, but kept the subzero chill.
They made timeless records, mostly free of luxury brand name-drops or other pop culture signifiers. “Survival of the Fittest” and “Shook Ones Pt. II” sound every bit as fresh and menacing in 2017 as they did the day they dropped. Prodigy’s clearest message comes through on the spoken word “Infamous Interlude,” where he lays out exactly where he stands—not bragging, just spelling out that there’s no fight he’ll avoid, win or lose. Those words rung true to the end. Old before his time, now he’s gone before it too.