Photograph by Anthony Geathers

Queens Noir: Prodigy’s Legacy in 25 Songs

“I miss the dead, I wish the dead
Would please come back, I need your help
And everybody that got somebody deceased
I know you feel the same
Their spirit gon’ live through me”
—Prodigy, “Veteran’s Memorial, Pt. II”

It’s hard to explain the alchemy that makes an artist special to you. Why did my gradual appreciation of Mobb Deep come to focus on Prodigy, making him a touchstone artist for me? I think there’s the sense of achievement against great odds, which is always inspiring. But even before I knew about his sickle cell disease, which took him from us at the age of 42 last week, I think it was his place on a continuum of narrative that goes from Chandler and Hammett to MacDonald and then through to Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim.

I love film noir and “blaxploitation” cinema and I used to listen to the first three Mobb Deep albums and imagine turning all the fragments of stories into a cinematic noir epic, wondering how the widescreen movie Prodigy and Havoc created in my mind could translate to the big screen. But rap is its own art form, and Prodigy’s rhymes, in all their elliptical, schematic glory, are, at their best, perfect and complete in their own right.

So I admired his craft and was entertained and fascinated by his lurid and indelible descriptive powers, but it became something more than that. There was the New York connection, something we talked about the second time I met him, and the sense of adversity overcome, which could explain why I really got into his music only after my son died from cancer. Prodigy turned pitch-black reality into artistic and popular gold, becoming a star on his own terms, making the world his home when his disease threatened to confine him to a hospital bed.

Of course we know the myth of something from nothing is just that—a myth—so I was intrigued to learn of Prodigy’s musical ancestry, with his mother a member of a late incarnation of The Crystals and his grandfather a professional jazz saxophonist. A surprising number of hip hop avatars have deep musical roots, belying those who would question the genre’s validity. The wild card in this lineage was his “pops,” a thief who was locked up for much of his son’s childhood. Prodigy took the hand that was dealt him and tried to honor the better parts of his DNA, while acknowledging the temptations of darkness. This added dimension to my understanding of the man and his music, which has been a constant companion.

When it comes to artists I love, I’m always working on “the tape” in my mind, that concise collection of songs that will show all their facets and give newcomers the breadcrumbs they need to find more of what they like. Going in, I had a pretty good idea of some of the tracks that were musts to include and my initial impulse was to go for 20 tracks featuring some of my favorites by Mobb Deep and Prodigy. It wasn’t so easy, however, as the first three Mobb Deep albums are stunningly consistent, and Return Of The Mac,  The Bumpy Johnson Album and Albert Einstein are very complete listening experiences. Also, there were a few things I missed along he way and some songs that sounded better than I remembered. So I expanded the scope and created Mobbed Up: 25 Great Prodigy Tracks, keeping to a reasonable length without too many egregious omissions. Of course, that’s open to debate and I welcome any counter-arguments!

It also must be said that the process of making this playlist reminded me why I still carry around a 120GB iPod Classic: Not everything is available on Spotify. While Prodigy’s solo career is pretty well-represented on the platform, there are some notable absences from the Mobb Deep discography, especially on the song level. The tense and slinky “Waterboarding,” from Black Cocaine, a strong EP from 2011 showcases Prodigy at his most hypnotic and would have been a candidate for the mix, as would have “Dead Man Shoes” from the same release.

It was their first since Prodigy had served a three-year sentence for gun possession—imagine the same thing happening to Billy Joel, another New York icon with Long Island origins.

Their last album, The Infamous Mobb Deep from 2014, is also not on the platform (it’s also out of print—copies go for $50), and, while uneven, has a couple of standout tracks, like “Taking You Off Here” and especially “Low,” a soap opera in miniature.

That record was packaged with a disc of outtakes from 1995, always fascinating, as was The Infamous Archives, which was packed with unreleased gems like “Everyday Gun Play” and “S*** Hits The Fan.” Follow up on those songs if you can, and also seek out some classic guest spots, which I left off to keep the focus on Prodigy. You could make a whole separate list of his best features, which would have to include “I Shot Ya” by LL Cool J and “L.A. L.A.” by Capone’n’Noreaga with Mobb Deep and Tragedy.

Albert “Prodigy” Johnson is now in his “aftermath”—a lot sooner than we expected—and we are in ours. But as you shape your life the way you want, remember to be inspired by what he did with his, and against what odds.

“Gangsters don’t die, they just turn into legends.”
—Prodigy, “Legends,” Return Of The Mac

Spotify Playlist: 

 

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