Why Prodigy Was A Once-In-A-Generation Rapper

kris ex on the singular talents of Mobb Deep's Prodigy.


Image via Matthew Eisman/Getty


The most violent of the violentest crimes we give life to
If these Queensbridge kids don’t like you
We bring drama of the worst kind to enemies
Your first time will be your last Earth memories
It’s only your own fault, I gave you fair warning: Beware
Of killer kids who don’t care —“Shook Ones Pt. 1”

He put his lifetime in between the paper’s lines, but not autobiographically, as most rappers of renown do. Instead, Albert “Prodigy” Johnson pioneered an extraordinary rap flow full of cold-eyed nihilism that presented death as the only meaningful framework for life.

Prodigy—who passed away in Las Vegas this week at age 42—was one of hip-hop’s Three P’s. Along with the late Sean Price (who died in his sleep at 43 in 2015) and Pharrell Williams, he was one of few rappers whose name could be filed down to a single letter. But—unlike Price, who needed his first name to accentuate himself, or Williams, who characterized his name with modifiers (like “Skateboard P”)—Prodigy was simply “P.” And with good reason. Even as half of one of the genre’s most vaunted duos (along with Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita), P was a singular character in hip-hop, a rule-breaker and world-creator, weary and grounded even as he threatened to stab your brain with your nose bone.

The legacy of Prodigy—and by extension Mobb Deep—may be a hip-hop case of Seinfeld is Unfunny; an act whose ethos has been so influential that looking back in an archival sense robs listeners of the first night chills that came in on those Queensbridge winds.

It’s almost impossible to recapture the impact of Prodigy and Havoc, donned in Hennessy football jerseys, without realizing that less than a decade earlier, at a a time when professionally recorded rap was still novel and change was slow, Heavy D & The Boyz were dancing in Coca-Cola sweatshirts as a representation of an affront to the status quo. But Mobb Deep weren’t dancing—they were the stone-faced super-predators that First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton would decry the next year: “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she’d say at Keene State College in New Hampshire. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called super-predators—no conscience, no empathy.“

I got you stuck off the realness; we be the Infamous. You heard of us: Official Queensbridge murderers… —“Shook Ones, Pt. II”

P’s opening lines were things of depraved beauty. Take the start of “Shook Ones,” or the beginning of its more well-known sibling, “Shook Ones, Pt. II,” both quoted above. These are not threats, but declarations of self as fair warning from real n-ggas who ain’t got no feelings. These words represent what was important to him; this is how he wanted to introduce himself as a greeting: “Hello, my name is P. I am only 19, but my mind is old. I represent death, violence, and the Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in North America. This is the start of your ending.”

It was as if he was saying to other rappers what Bane said to Batman in The Dark Knight Rises: “Oh, you think darkness is your ally? But your merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, molded by it—I didn’t see the light until I was already a man. By then it was nothing to me but blinding.” He was Nietzsche in construction Timberlands and an Army-certified suit; New York’s harshest Darwinist.

P’s bleakness wasn’t just depressed ghetto existentialism expressed via hyperbole, but something in his blood—literally. His lifelong war against sickle cell disease made death a more pressing inevitability for him than most and rooted his worldview that only the strong survive, but also that the strong would also perish. (See: “Infamous Prelude.”) He would drink away his pain with Ease-Us Jesus (E&J brandy) or Dainy (that’s St. Ides and Pina Colada champales in dunn language), but not without pouring some out for the fallen and sharing the bottle with the standing. In his early rhymes as part of Mobb Deep—which were separate from his Michael Jackson dancing days, his stint as Jive Records artist Lord–T (The Golden Child), or his time as part of Poetical Prophets—there’s nary a verse without the mention of the tightly wrought struggle between living and dying. Beyond simply detailing crime, Prodigy showcased depression, dysfunction, and self-medication.

You just complain ‘cause you stressed
N-gga, my pain’s in the flesh
And through the years, that pain became my friend, sedated
With morphine as a little kid
I built a tolerance for drugs
Addicted to the medicine
—“You Can Never Feel My Pain”

No one did more to present NYC housing projects as a world within in a world than Mobb Deep—not the Wu-Tang Clan, not M.O.P., not the Boot Camp Clik. And no one did as much to present the Queensbridge as a land of its own rules and morality as Hempstead, Long Island’s Prodigy. Not even Nas with his clear-eyed insight, Tragedy with his hard-earned wisdom, nor Capone with his in-the-trenches war reportage ever came close depicting the defeatist maladjustment borne of poverty and closed quarters the way that P did. Not even Havoc, with his trife life and times and proximity to his partner, could capture the front lines of hell on Earth like Prodigy. There are no bars to depict this—one simply has to give over to the experience of listening to the H.N.I.C.’s bleak worldview at length.

If there was joy to be found in P’s music, it was in his literary specificity and the way he viewed the world as an enemy and other rappers as nuisances. His appearance on Hell On Earth’s “Nightttime Vultures” exemplifies both strengths. He begins by awakening and recounting the prior night’s violence: “Bullets flew, I had to drag my man behind a wall/Left a wet trail, delivered these slugs like air mail/Directly at the cat that made my man blood spill.” But then he’s quickly on to stoically boasting about his rap prowess:

I kick that '98 shit for your ears to list
N-gga P way ahead of his time, surpass kids
Kickin' rhymes that's true lies
Let me break 'em down to size, minimize they air time
After this you never will go back to that which
Sit back an' write half-ass shit
At last, the official taking out the artificial
Let me relieve you, replace that shit with some lethal
Mobb, remember the name it's been along
Y’all n-gga's shook to death from the first fuckin’ song

Beef with other rappers seemed to be in Prodigy’s DNA—from Keith Murray to 2Pac to Saigon and Jay-Z, to spats with Noreagea, Nas, and eventually Havoc, Prodigy spent his careers enmeshed in conflicts that often turned bloody and felt more dangerous than garden variety hip-hop squabbles. Though he often emerged from the losing end of these disputes, there remained a sense of unbeatability about him. Through it all, he stood tall at five feet and six inches, resolute in himself, if nothing else.

Battle-scarred and wizened, Prodigy lived long enough to see himself become a grand antihero of sorts. Following his deal with 50 Cent’s G Unit and a three-year prison bid, he came back to rap in 2011 more as a solo act than group member. He embraced his veteran status, co-authoring an autobiography and a prison-centered cookbook, and focused on his physical health in the way the Black men need to as they approach their 40s—eating better, working out, moving away from alcohol. He became a working rapper, leaning on his legacy without resting on his laurels or reliving his glory days—he pushed forward and kept himself current by acknowledging ascendant talents, releasing songs with Troy Ave and Buffalo’s Conway. Right up to his death, he was working—creating new music and touring.

At the same time, he could be a bit of a drunk uncle. He released a classic blog rant demanding homage (to be fair, “shook” would not be a colloquialism without Mobb Deep) and delved deeper into his arcane fascinations (his latest album, released this past January was titled Hegelian Dialectic (The Book of Revelation) as part of trilogy that was set to include The Book of Heroine and The Book of the Dead). His belief that the Illuminati—a secret society that wanted his mind, soul, and his body—was actually a thing became more pronounced.

In 2011, he appeared on Alex Jones’s Infowars, claiming that President Barack Obama was part of a bloodline that made him cousins with the Bushes and Dick Cheney. “Whether he knows it or not, he’s down with this whole conspiracy to rule the world,” Prodigy asserted of Obama. “Basically, he’s a part of it—to brainwash people and to kill people, genocide. Everything that’s going on out there that is just so fantastic [that] you really don’t want to believe it, Obama is down with it.”

To his credit, he knew how he sounded: “This [is] what I was promoting to people and they tried to, like, almost demonize me or say, ‘Oh, Prodigy’s crazy. What’s wrong with this guy? He’s just ranting and he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s a conspiracy theorist and he does this and he does that.’ I’m like, ‘Wow. There’s that many crazy people in this world, for real.’”


Spaghetti-head Mobb n-ggas is full-bred
Fully-blown melanin tone
I rock skeleton bone shirts and verses
But thirst for worse beats
So I can put more product out on the street
Get respect and love all across the board
We've been adored for keepin' it raw
Nothin' less or more I score every time for sure
While the rest of y'all n-ggas just nil
—“Quiet Storm”

It may be impossible to overstate Mobb Deep’s importance to hip-hop as a whole, and to New York hip-hop in particular. They—along with the Wu-Tang Clan and Boot Camp Clik— were responsible to defining what is now undeniably referred to as an East Coast sound: chopped dusty jazz and soul samples over big drums, accompanied by gritty and grimy rhymes about urban despair. Mobb Deep created headphone music—engrossing and encompassing analog mood music that’s sonically distinct from pristine, dignified earbud sounds of today. It’s the banner carried by acts like Roc Marciano, Ka, Westside Gunn, and Conway—and the reason why those artists exist at all.

As conversations about these things go, it’s become a shortcut to a point to describe Mobb Deep as a duo where Prodigy was the rapper’s rapper and Havoc was the producer’s producer, but the truth is more intertwined than that. Prodigy constructed bars of theretofore unforeseen formation that remain some of rap’s most iconic verses. And it’s true the Havoc—aided by the tutelage and assistance of A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip on The Infamous—built incomparably dour grooves of head-nodding moodiness. But, when I was interviewing the group shortly after the release of The Infamous, two things stood out to me that I have thought about often in the 20-plus years since.

The first was when I commented on the group’s vocabulary. They seemed to not know what I was talking about as I was telling them about the way they used words—not just slang, but terms like “butter-soft leather upholstery,” their internal rhymes, their novel ending couplets. I asked them if there was something in the water in Queensbridge. Havoc doubled-over cackling and P, sunken on a couch giggled and smirked to himself as they both repeated: “He said something in the water…”

There’s no replacement for Prodigy.

At that early stage, there was no narrative that said that P was therapper of the group. He was undoubtedly the stronger and more gripping writer of the two, but Havoc wasn’t just there for dressing. Especially on the first two Mobb Deep albums, he more than holds his own.

The other thing I think about gives lie to the idea that Havoc was the lone architect of the group’s sound. As we spoke during that interview, there wasn’t any indication that the musical process was anything but a joint affair. At one point, P was talking about how they had to rework some samples due to clearance issues and he played an invisible keyboard in the air. It never left me how nimble and articulate his fingers were—it was the movement of someone familiar with keys, not a haphazard plunking of digits. It’s something that makes sense in the face of Prodigy’s lineage—his mother was a member of the 60s girls group The Crystals, his father was part of a doo-wop act, his grandfather was a jazz musician. Not only was P the driving force between many of the Mobb’s narrative ideas, he was instrumental in charting the course for their sound, and his solo albums revealed his ear was as crucial and influential as Q-Tip’s fifth Beatle role on The Infamous.

Mobb Deep—titans of rap with a decades-long career that few could have predicted—was a coming of two halves to create a whole. It’s doubtful that either member would have reached the rarified heights that they had without the other, or had the confidence to place their big pre-release single as the next-to-last cut on their debut album. And it’s without question that Mobb Deep—after all of the internal and external drama—is over. There’s no replacement for Prodigy.

For most acts that debuted in 1995, this would be a career retrospective with no thought of future endeavors. But Mobb Deep was just not any act. They may have peaked a handful of projects ago, but there was always the possibility of new greatness. Unlike rapping, production is not necessarily a young man’s game and Havoc still has the potential to create transformative soundscapes. And Prodigy was in continued development as a writer; he still had interesting things to say. It’s not a stretch to believe he could have further spearheaded into old-head chronicles, filled with rewarding revelations.

But, with his death, the books are closed on the Official Queensbridge Murderers. While they were here, they put their lifetimes in between the paper’s line and into our ears, minds, and souls. And rap was never the same.

Latest in Music