R.I.P. Prodigy: Mobb Deep’s 10 Most Essential Tracks
Prodigy's death at 42 has sparked an outpouring of grief from fans and words of tribute and respect from his peers and collaborators. The wordsmith was one of the more celebrated rhymers of his generation, and amongst 90s New York rap fans, he's on the short list of the most respected emcees.
Mobb Deep left an indelible mark on the culture. Alongside acts like Wu-Tang Clan, Nas and the Notorious B.I.G., they were at the forefront of the East Coast's commercial resurgence circa 94/95, and--despite the weak response to their 1993 debut album Juvenile Hell--Mobb Deep became one of the more consistent acts in hip-hop; delivering acclaimed albums like Hell On Earth, Murda Muzik and Infamy. Of course, the most indeniable album in the duo's oeuvre is their breakthrough album, 1995s The Infamous.
Over the years, Prodigy would guest on tracks by everyone from Run-D.M.C. to Snoop Dogg to Action Bronson. But he will be forever burned into the canon of hip-hop legends for his work within Mobb Deep. In honor of P's life and legacy, here are our ten favorite tracks from Queensbridge's most infamous.
"Get no sleep, only rest is in between the blink
My life story was written in blood, permanent ink" Havoc rhymes over skittering keys and hardcore boom-bap on one of Mobb Deep's most underrated singles. Along with an assist from Big Noyd, the track closes with Prodigy's cold threats: "You let me get my hands on you so I'm takin advantage/And that shit that you pulled ain't do me no damage..."
He'd produced most of their biggest album, (with some guest work from Q-Tip), but Havoc took over production entirely for Mobb Deep's follow-up to The Infamous. And while Hell On Earth's singles didn't enjoy the same commercial success as "Shook Ones" or "Give Up the Goods," it featured dark masterpieces like this. Somber street rap is what Mobb Deep does best and they are on their game here. Prodigy spits: "Yo, the heavy metal king, hold big shit with spare clips/You see an eclipse when the MAC spit, your top got split"
A somber, string-laden track about regrets, pain and loss, it's one of the most melancholy songs in Mobb Deep catalog. The Mobb never shied away from rapping about pain, but there's something about Havoc's production and he and Prodigy's world-weary rhymes here. And the hook drives it all home: "Have you ever lost a loved one? Or never understood love 'til you lost one? Where your heart at? I left mines behind with my dearly departed."
One of the most interesting qualities of Mobb Deep's classic 1995 album The Infamous is how it focuses on grimy street tales, but oftentimes set them against a sonic backdrop that's almost jazzy. One of the best examples is this standout, and it's not hard to figure out where the feel comes from: it was produced by Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest. It also features Crystal Johnson on the hook.
An ingenious flip of Giorgio Moroder's theme from Scarface carries this ominous cut from 1996s Hell On Earth. Havoc was always one of the best at creating dark soundscapes on which Prodigy could paint his crime tales: "My category is that of an insane man who strike back/I draw first blood, it's over with, and that's that/You wanna square off, forsake and slice that cat/You get slashed, from back of your head, to ass crack"
A track so laid back it's easy to overlook how menacing the track is--and how brilliant the overall song is. "Step back look at my life as a whole/Ain't no love it seems the devil done stole my soul," Prodigy raps. "I'm out for delfia, selfia, P's not helping ya/I'm tryna get this Lexus up, and plus a cellular/Yo, Big Noyd! (What up cousin?) I can't cope/With all these crab niggas tryna shorten my rope..." All over another great production from Q-Tip.
Another stellar Scarface sample, this time Giorgio Moroder's "Tony's Theme," gives this classic track a dramatic flair, and a winning guest verse from fellow Queensbridge product Nas pushes things into overdrive. With a hook that interpolates Brandy and Monica's hit "The Girl is Mine," the three Queens rhymes spit kingpin fantasies that would make Tony Montana proud.
A scene-stealing verse from Lil Kim, a throbbing sinister beat courtesy of Havoc (who slowed down the famous bassline from Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's classic "White Lines (Don't Do It)" and Prodigy doing what Prodigy does--it's one of the most celebrated tracks from Mobb Deep. And it's not at all hard to see why.
One of Mobb Deep's finest moments on record and one of Havoc's triumphs as a producer. "Survival of the Fittest" became an anthem of 90s New York street rap, carried by a foreboding piano sample courtesy of Barry Harris and Harry Cohn's "Sky Lark" and Prodigy, in particular, shines:
"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/
They never around when the beef cooks..."
There are very few hip-hop songs as iconic as the lead single from Mobb Deep's classic 2nd album. Built around the sound of a gas-lit stove in Havoc's apartment, the track turned Havoc and Prodigy into street rap stars and became a fixture on music video shows. Mobb Deep was just getting started, really--but what a way to reintroduce yourself.