Legendary Queensbridge rapper Prodigy, best known as one half of influential East Coast duo Mobb Deep, died on June 20, 2017. He was only 42 years old, and leaves behind a vast catalogue of music, most of it unfairly underrated. Son Raw files through P’s litany of mixtapes, guest appearances and remixes to pull out the rapper’s very best deep cuts.
Few songwriters dealt with pain as eloquently as Mobb Deep’s Prodigy. Whether illustrating his everyday mental and physical suffering or promising to inflict a terminal dose of violence upon his enemies, P’s constant was pain, and it colored every topic he approached.
When he bragged about his riches and sexual conquests, that was an escape from pain. When he indicted the system in his latter-day work, he was searching for the root cause behind the pain of contemporary African-American life. Even when writing battle raps, a huge part of P’s catalog followed unspoken rules to establish the writer’s rap supremacy. Prodigy didn’t just want to win – he wanted to annihilate and maim his opponents. He warned: “do not try to inflict more pain on me and those I love, for I shall strike first, and I promise overkill.”
To trace Prodigy’s career from beginning to end is to start with a teenage rapper taking Hillary Clinton’s infamous (pun intended) super-predator stereotype and spitting it back in the establishment’s face: embodying the caricature of the nihilistic, gun-toting black teenager and imbuing it with pathos, intelligence and a novelist’s eye for detail. This style, epitomized by Mobb’s classics The Infamous and Hell on Earth, marks Prodigy’s first great peak, the moment where he synthesized Rakim’s cool monotone and Kool G Rap’s vivid crime tales into an entirely new compound. It’s impossible to imagine 21 Savage’s style being quite as cold and detached without Prodigy doing it first.
Exiting the immediate trauma of street life, Prodigy’s writing only became more confident, taking on the swaggering quality of New York’s late ‘90s boom without ever losing the grim edge that made his words so distinctive. This is where the best of Prodigy’s non-LP output is found: beyond Mobb Deep’s eight official albums and Prodigy’s own seven solo releases, there exists an entire shadow catalogue of mixtape exclusives, guest verses, alternate versions denied sample clearance and unreleased bootlegs. Between Hell on Earth and the closing of Loud Records in 2002, you couldn’t pick up a mixtape, compilation or many rap solo albums without hearing P’s laconic drawl on a verse or two. And no conversation debating the best rapper out was complete without someone advocating for Mobb Deep’s chief lyricist.
Though slowed down by beef Jay-Z and Nas and hobbled by an ill-fitting alliance with 50 Cent and a stretch in jail, Prodigy’s latter-day oeuvre remains one of rap’s most underrated. Like Snoop Dogg, Prodigy learned to temper the barrage of words of his early rhymes into a more economical style, leaning into the cracks in his voice, making sure listeners focused on every threat of violence or piece of advice he dispensed. Quietly, this style has had a major impact on underground New York hip-hop: you can see shades of Prodigy’s hard boiled noir in the work of Roc Marciano, Ka, and anyone whose bars seethe with subtle rage instead of boiling over into clamor.
While singles like ‘Shook Ones Pt. II’, ‘Quiet Storm’ and ‘Keep it Thoro’ will forever go down as rap anthems, this pain is best represented on cuts lurking immediately below the surface – album tracks and mixtape cuts that don’t usually make mix-show rotation on your favorite rap oldies station. With this in mind, the following selection is meant as an introduction to Prodigy’s writing outside the confines of commercial rap stardom – looking past his singles and best known albums with Mobb Deep. For those who wish to dig even deeper, I highly recommend DJ Mister Cee’s Best of Mobb Deep mixtape, which focuses on the era immediately preceding the one covered here.
Big Noyd (ft. Prodigy)
‘Recognize & Realize Pt. 1-2’
While never officially part of Mobb Deep, fellow Queensbridge rapper Big Noyd appeared all over the group’s best releases. ‘Recognize and Realize’ was Noyd’s debut and much like the Mobb’s own ‘Shook Ones’, the second part is the version of choice, thanks to particularly vicious Prodigy bars.
P promises to leave you “limbless like Greek sculptures” after going “at your throat like a pitbull”, revealing just some of the genuine menace that made him one of the most feared MCs in ‘90s New York.
DJ Muggs (ft. Mobb Deep)
‘It Could Happen to You’
Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs shared Havoc’s love of blunted, cinematic samples in his productions, so this was a fitting proposition from the get go, but to their credit, no one coasts on their reputations here. Dropping after Tupac and Biggie’s devastating murders, this cross-coastal show of unity is thick with weed smoke and paranoia.
Although Havoc handles most of the rapping, Prodigy immediately ups the levels with the kind of scene-stealing verse that had rap fans whispering about a potential solo career, even at the peak of Mobb Deep’s dominance.
DJ Clue (ft. Mobb Deep & Big Noyd)
During the Mobb’s imperial phase, their star shined bright enough to tackle the title track of the then-ascendant DJ Clue’s debut compilation for Roc-a-Fella. Sadly, Prodigy would become embroiled in an escalating war of words with Clue’s label head Jay-Z within the year.
‘The Professional’ showcases Havoc and Prodigy’s ability to shift with the times, nudging their dusty gloom and doom into slightly more energetic places while retaining their ice-cold menace.
Mariah Carey (ft. Mobb Deep)
‘The Roof (Remix)’
Let’s take a second to appreciate Mariah Carey’s rap bonafides – from ODB to Gucci Mane, her taste in MCs has never been less than stellar. She’s exposed countless soft R&B fans to the most rugged rap, whether they wanted it or not. The original version of ‘The Roof’ is already built around a sample of ‘Shook Ones Pt. II’, so it’s only natural that the Mobb would come through for the remix, with Prodigy reprising his iconic opening rhymes and Hav sharing the mic with Big Noyd.
Admittedly, this one’s still Mariah’s show, but it’s a reminder that at their best, Havoc and Prodigy could even infiltrate pop radio in an era where rap was still a cause for alarm.
‘Nobody Likes Me’
There’s a transformative quality to the best of Mobb Deep’s piano-based beats. Sure, you know the tracks sample piano riffs, but somewhere in the process the keys cease to originate from an organic instrument and mutate into something more – the dusty bearer of generations of pain and nostalgia carried over from the jazz and soul eras. It was a sound that eventually became the template for Queensbridge hip-hop.
Here, Prodigy coldly describes the aftermath of a shooting and how he’ll do the same to his next target. It’s an utterly ruthless declaration and plays perfectly off the world-weary instrumentation.
Capone-N-Noreaga (ft. Mobb Deep)
If Mobb Deep had any equals at their peak, it was Capone and Noreaga. Their The War Report full-length built on the blueprint of despair and darkness laid out by The Infamous and was the last classic major label Queens debut of the ’90s.
That album’s ‘L.A., L.A.’ remains the two groups’ most iconic collaboration, but Prodigy was absent from the proceedings, an omission more than corrected on ‘Queens’ Finest’ where his concise delivery proved the perfect foil for Nore’s gruff energy.
Mobb Deep (ft. Kool G Rap)
Coming straight out of Beverly Hills, The Alchemist isn’t an obvious Mobb Deep collaborator. In fact, Prodigy actually suspected the young producer of being an undercover federal agent at first. Thankfully, Alchemist’s beat for ‘The Realest’ convinced P that he was on the level, forming the basis for a vital musical relationship.
Alchemist’s touch of soul offered a laid back departure from Mobb Deep’s usual darkness, giving the duo the opportunity to get reflective. Prodigy and Havoc maintained their criminal subject matter but began to approach it from a distance as they settled into the rap life and left the street life behind.
Prodigy (ft. Nas)
Given P’s mercurial personality and Nas’s rap messiah complex, it’s unsurprising that the two rappers’ relationship ranged from tight-knit alliance to outward hostility throughout their careers. During their late ’90s peak, they were easily Queensbridge’s most recognizable ambassadors and shared the mic on a number of tracks, but ‘Self Conscience’, from the QB Finest album remains a rare one-on-one meeting.
Built around an eerie sample of Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’, the track is dominated by Prodigy who describes a back-and-forth battle between his id and superego, projecting his thought process outwards with no filter. As Prodigy reflects on the dangers of street life and his responsibilities, the effect is that of sullen reflection, a moment of calm between battles on the street and his own mind.
Prodigy dropped ‘Veteran’s Memorial’, a song eulogizing over a dozen of his peers and relatives, in November of 2000. He was barely 26-years old. Though the entire Mobb oeuvre is steeped in the trauma caused by poverty, drugs and gun violence, no song is as stark and unflinching in its description of the consequences of this lifestyle as ‘Veteran’s Memorial’.
Prodigy raps dead-eyed about his partnership with Havoc and the friends they lost along the way, but the rhymes feel like little more than a build up to the freeform shout outs at the end of the track. Here, P bears witness to the dead and swears on his life that he’d rather die than lose another friend. It’s an indictment of gun culture that’s just as relevant today as it was on release.
Cormega (ft. Prodigy)
‘Thun and Kicko’
By 2001, any unity in Queensbridge was long gone and with Nas AWOL due to personal issues, Prodigy and fellow Queens veteran Cormega delivered a bruising assault on his reputation with ‘Thun and Kicko’. But what’s unique about Prodigy’s blistering opening is how he interweaves respect amidst the tongue lashing – conceding that Nas is a great MC while ruthlessly calling his street credentials into question.
In contrast, Prodigy presents himself as equal parts gunman and rap stage competitor, unafraid of the opposition in either arena, and armed with the steely courage to take on any comer in both fields.
Prodigy & Kool G Rap
Taken from Funkmaster Flex’s The Tunnel full-length, ‘QBG’ proves that even at its most workmanlike, the Mobb Deep sound was startlingly effective thanks to the group’s stark contrast. Prodigy’s violent hedonism would be par for the course over most beats, but he managed to find production that emphasized his strengths. ‘QBG’ is no exception. Replete with gothic church bells and discordant loops, this sounds like walking through a hailstorm in New York City.
‘Bang on ’Em’
Prodigy’s fortunes waned after Jay-Z’s verbal assault and Summer Jam screen embarrassment in 2001, sending the MC into a tailspin that an ill-conceived run on G-Unit did little to improve. But it’d be a mistake to ignore the rapper’s more recent work, as his Return of the Mac mixtape with Alchemist is a true classic and one of the best gangsta rap releases of the ’00s.
Built on a musical foundation of massive loops and breakbeats, the album doesn’t reinvent the wheel sonically, but it’s the perfect context for an older, wiser Prodigy to show us how he could evolve – grumbling and mumbling like the anti-hero out of a Blaxploitation film noir.
‘Never Feel My Pain’
A devastatingly honest song, ‘Never Feel My Pain’ is Prodigy laying it all out there regarding the debilitating sickle cell anemia that would later take his life. There’s anger in his words, and an exasperation with both the hand he was dealt and the sheer incompetency of a medical system that couldn’t possibly cure him.
Lashing out at anyone even daring to compare their trials to his very physical suffering, the absolute heaviness of P’s words is only offset by the almost billowy track, a contrast creating a grim but beautiful monument to those battling life-threatening, incurable diseases. Prodigy delivers some of the most chilling words ever committed to tape when he asks God for help “only to find that he’s all by his God damned self”.
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