Rest in Peace Prodigy, Rap's Most Uncompromising Voice
P was artful. He was a naturalist, but the style is inimitable. And no one folded their bandana like him.
Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
1. It takes about four minutes for the soul to leave the body. That's the gap between the rumor and the TMZ confirmation, between the word that trickles out through ex-Queensbridge Instagram accounts and the moment Hot 97 stops its programming cold to read the report. Prodigy of Mobb Deep: died June 20, 2017. Only 42 but his mind was old.
2. XXL, the fall of 2005. "MIKE JONES ON HIS CRAZY YEAR," "MAC DRE TRIBUTE," "JAY-Z AND NAS END FEUD," "THE RETURN OF SUPERHEAD." The cover story was "G-UNIT: THE GANG'S ALL HERE!"; there was one of those foldout panels where you turn the page and peel back a cologne ad to reveal Spider Loc. Banks, Buck, and Yayo were also relegated to that part, along with Olivia, while the cover proper was full of the trophies 50 was lording over Jay-Z: Mobb Deep over his right shoulder, M.O.P. over his left. Mase lurking in the back. Everyone in leather. I can't find my copy of the issue—I'm sure it's somewhere in a musty stack—but I remember fragments from the story, like when either Billy Danze or Lil Fame said he got fed up at Roc-A-Fella because he didn't feel like they could call up Jay with concerns or pop over to his hotel room late at night to hash out differences. 50, they insisted, was different. M.O.P. never put out a record on G-Unit. Mobb Deep did. I bought Blood Money the day it came out and played it every day until school let out six weeks later. That might color my read of the record, but I've always felt that it was the only Mobb album meant for summer. ("Backstage Pass" probably doesn't need to exist in any season, but imagine throwing that on after Labor Day.) This was more than a half-decade after P dropped H.N.I.C. but before P went on his independent tear. Two things stick in my mind: First, there's the sheer giddiness you can catch in 50's voice when he's rapping next to the legends from Queens. (Even Banks sounds excited, and, well...) Second, I remember P's verse on "Stole Something." There are murders on both coasts, but they sound like vague inconveniences, like there was no place to buy replacement Pelle Pelle in Santa Monica.
3. Sickle cell anemia is a slow, corrosive burn—the median life expectancy for women with the disease is 48—marked by acute periods of intense pain and discomfort. The FDA has approved exactly one drug to combat the disease, and even it is only effective in roughly half of those who have it. Something like 90 percent of Americans with sickle cell anemia are Black. Oh, the life expectancy for afflicted men? Forty-two.
5. Can't they see us wylin' out on the video? Don't they see us in the club, swinging elbows?
6. "Stuck On You" was fearless, in its way. By 2007, album-oriented rap—especially album-oriented rap from New York—was at or near an all-time low-water mark, and the fight or flight response executives had to snap or crunk or Soulja Boy was throwing the major label world into chaos. P came back with something so in the pocket, so fucking gimmickless that you couldn't wash it off. He came back as an independent fury, shirking off the weight of stardom like an old mink.
7. The Infamous is the masterpiece, an eerily collected, improbably poised exercise in reportage. But the follow-up, Hell on Earth, was uncontrolled chaos. Scorched Earth. I thought "God, Pt. 3" sounded like a nightmare: not the linear, horror movie type, but the unmoored, impressionistic terror that leaves you soaked in sweat. The sort of fear you can feel tactilely but can't properly articulate. "Horror tales in Braille, for vision impaired." If you write the lyrics down on paper, the title track sounds, simply, exhausted: "The saga begins; begin war." Fighting from the moment you're born, the moment you wake up. Of course, P would never be caught sleeping, so it's firm, resolute. On "Still Shinin'," he makes the drug trade sound horrifying even when it's used as a metaphor for music. (Rappers will always be accused of glorifying illegal business, but the way Mobb Deep rapped about it, you imagined yourself wracked with nerves, losing weight, barely sleeping.) He got the Quotable for "Nighttime Vultures." P always seemed, along with Nas, like the control in the experiment: everyone in rap was doing a variation on their styles, either one degree or several removed. You couldn't imagine the art form—any art form—pared down any further than "Dreaming of growing old with my son to live great" being clouded by war, by Hell.
8. P and Havoc had a friend with a speech impediment and made it a new language. "Dun" started as an inside joke they used to amuse one another and their circle of friends, but it sprawled out into syntaxes all over the rap-listening country. It was like tagging a dolphin to track its migration patterns, except the dolphin had friends in Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, Illinois—even Hollywood, dun.
9. I think about The Infamous in the context of P's eventual incarceration. The war going on outside no man is safe from isn't just a rain of bullets and a brief reign of panic—it's a glacial war of attrition waged by the police and rendered so fully and so convincingly by a pair of barely-legal geniuses. "Up North Trip" was less about the condition of being locked up than about living in a world where one could get locked up at any time. Over and over again, The Infamous loops back to the low-level psychic trauma of living under those conditions, and even when P steels himself against it, that's the axis his music revolves around. A gun charge stemming from a traffic stop and a plea deal to sidestep a mandatory minimum seemed like the sort of petty invasions of freedom that he would have sneered at in his teen years. It was grossly postmodern. It was arbitrary. Lock me up forever but they can't deflate me.
10. In 2013, on the second Alchemist album, he was still teaching the next generation how to spot unmarked cars. The beats got lusher and had more swing. But as calm as P was, he never relaxed.
11. "Takeover" was ruthless. Everything about Nas—"You ain't live it, you witnessed it from your folks' pad / scribbled in your notepad / and created your life"—landed, and until "Ether" hit, the song seemed like an unqualified win. But the guy on the Summer Jam screen was Prodigy, glossed up for his grandmother's Carnegie Hall performance. There's really nothing damning about the picture, but Jay seemed so bulletproof in the moment that P was cast as collateral damage. As if he could ever be collateral damage. The more compelling friction that year was from Nas himself, on "Destroy & Rebuild": "Before I would have told you Prodigy's my dog."
12. You can't overstate Murda Muzik. "Quiet Storm" is exactly that, all bubbling tension and nervous energy. "I put my lifetime in between the paper's lines." The 8-Ball song, "Where Ya From," might be the smoothest thing the Mobb ever did. They go bar-for-bar with Kool G Rap (even though that time, the guest got the Quotable). That was an Alchemist beat. "Let a Ho Be a Ho" sounds like it should be about death.
13. "Live Nigga Rap" was supposed to be on Hell On Earth. P's verse was supposed to be on "L.A., L.A.," which is why it's a grimy, stripped-down New York song and he's rapping about his Santa Barbara connects.
14. No one folded their bandana like him.
15. P was artful. He was a naturalist, but the style is inimitable. Without him, is there Marcberg? (Without Marcberg, is there Ka? Earl?)
16. P's last album was called Hegelian Dialectic (The Book of Revelation). Rap has a rich history with conspiracy theories, even mysticism, but here he taps into it in a completely different way. "Mafuckin U$A" opens: "Everything not Illuminati, everything not an evil plot, nah." Sometimes people just get shot. There aren't always answers. But somewhere underneath the surface, there's a deeper truth you can tap into with enough focus, grit, and magic. I don't know how to find it, but I know it's there. Prodigy had all the blueprints.
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- Mobb Deep
- Blood Money
- The Infamous
- Hell On Earth
- You Heard of Us
- Murda Muzik
- Hegelian Dialectic (The Book of Revelation)