He put his lifetime in between the paper’s lines. That’s why the recent news that the sun set on the life of Albert Johnson a.k.a. Prodigy of Mobb Deep landed like a blow to the gut of those who followed his music since his early years in the ‘90s. Prodigy’s introspective lyrics, innovative use of slang and lyrical precision helped create some of the most quotable verses, which defined what is arguably the most important era of our hip-hop culture.
To his fans, Prodigy was the rare artist that entertained us with his skill, while keeping us intrigued with his transparency. We respected him for his lifelong battle with sickle-cell anemia, and stood in amazement as the smallest dog in the rumble took on giants in the industry and even led the charge against an invasion on the Empire State. P’s verses gave voice to struggle, while his aura personified the toughness in being an underdog kid from the inner city. His unblemished catalog enshrines him to a level where not even his death can erase the fact that his vocals have been inextricably connected to our pain and laughter since we first got addicted to his diction more than two decades ago.
The prelude to me becoming a Prodigy fan begins back in 1992, when I first began to see the world through different lenses. At only 10 years of age, I remember experiencing my working class neighborhood in West Baltimore suffer the effects of urban decay and watching drugs creep in to become a major part of the local economy. The backlash of street violence became regular conversation for us kids growing up inside the community. As the cultural expression that spoke directly to my everyday experience, hip-hop music became one of my most reliable sources of escape. Only a few years older than myself as a major recording genre, hip-hop began to take shape, developing a voice and perspective in her progression from adolescence into young adulthood.
With its growing maturity, hip-hop became more intuitive, taking on somber themes like Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s heartfelt memorial “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” from their 1992 debut LP Mecca And The Soul Brother. Showbiz & A.G. addressed the inner city hustler’s ambition in “More Than One Way Out of the Ghetto” from their Runaway Slave debut released that same year. These contributions were all great, but on the cusp of finding a true spokesman for our adolescent angst was a group not much older than me named Mobb Deep, who was recording an album entitled Juvenile Hell.
Though their debut album didn’t achieve meaningful commercial success upon its release in the spring of 1993, the duo of Havoc and Prodigy created arguably the angriest album of the year, as teenagers trying to give voice to the hopelessness erupting among America’s underprivileged, but from a school-aged perspective.
The stark contrast to the teenage wave of groups like Kris Kross who were marketed with cute clothing gimmicks, Juvenile Hell’s tracklist featured songs that referenced New York City’s notorious juvenile detention center (“Locked in Spofford”) and aimed for deeper insight into ghetto dwellings (“Project Hallways”). Well on his way to helping define an era with candid lyrics like “Most don't understand how it is in the world of today / growin’ up as a young black teen / I used to dream, of being an architect /easier said than done / believe me it's hard to get,” Prodigy’s brand of lyricism stood out on tracks like the DJ Premier produced single “Peer Pressure” which also spawned a Large Professor remix.
No doubt, benefiting from the acclaim of their Queensbridge neighbor Nasir Jones’ 1994 debut Illmatic, the group got a second chance on the big stage, when they returned with their sophomore album The Infamous in 1995. A little older and wiser, Havoc seemed to master a sinister production style with a rugged street cinema sound, perfectly matching Prodigy’s in-depth but melancholy hood tales that delve deeper into the frustration of growing up under harsh circumstances.
Fully engulfed in hip-hop, I was in my second year at West Baltimore Middle School, which serviced the neighborhoods crammed into the 21229 zip code, when The Infamous dropped. Like Wu-Tang Clan’s inaugural 1993 effort Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), time stood still while the slang, dress code, and attitude realigned with the impact of this colossal album.
Inside my school, the walls that held our worn chalkboards nearly peeled from the boiling tension of street rivalries of the surrounding communities, which would spill over as our aggression clashed on bus rides and long walks home. Unfortunately, our pent-up emotion that reflected the turmoil of some homes and neighborhoods was misdirected toward each other. Absorbing the environment where I lived along with the music I was listening to, Prodigy’s lyrics showed me that my circumstances where not exclusive to me, and that the experience was the same in a place called Queensbridge, more than 200 miles north of my hometown, in the Rotten Apple. “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 in my part of town / It's similar to Vietnam.” Prodigy’s bars from “Survival of the Fittest” were among the verses that became our daily theme music and were chanted like ancient war rituals, before fights sprung up in the hallways or inside the classrooms.
By the time my 7th grade school year came to an end in 1995, it was as if the whole school had memorized the entire Infamous album. Almost everything changed. We exchanged the word “crew” for “mob,” the Timberland boots that Havoc wore on the album cover became the most sought-after pair and nicknamed the “Mobb Deeps.” And as bad as it may sound, if you weren’t living the things that they talked about in their music, Prodigy’s lyrics provided enough detail to fake it. P, in particular, became akin to our big brother, my friends and I hung on every word, because we identified with his anger and were drawn to the fact that he and Havoc weren’t much older than we were. He earned our respect verse by verse and became iconic once “Shook Ones Part II” dropped, with lines like “I’m only 19, but my mind is old / when the things get for real, my warm heart turns cold /another nigga deceased, another story gets told / it ain’t nothing really / a yo, dun spark the philly.”
While Baltimore’s murder tally each year surpassed the figures of the year before, my friends and I went to school with the fights, murders, and the incarceration of our older siblings, cousins, neighbors and classmates as the topic of discussion, frequently pausing for a word from Prodigy, who helped teach us how to be hard amid the harsh circumstances. “I can recall the days; juvenile crime pays / fourteen years old, shorty from round way / brick-ass cold, still pump from night to day / but why did my life have to be this way?” P lamented on “Back at You,” a song that featured on the soundtrack of the 1996 film Sunset Park and helped authenticate the movie’s troubled main character.
Aside from his ability to connect with the essence of street hostility, Prodigy’s overall mastery of the art form placed him in the top tier of rap’s elite, as he was never truly outdone no matter his collaborator. “I let the streets get the best of me /infamy, my destiny / while cat burglars tryin' to sneak peep the recipe / inside my rap cookbook, paragraphs is gourmet / you pay about $5,000 a plate” were among some of the lines that ignited rhyme sessions, when P added his vocals to tracks like Nas’ “Live Nigga Rap” for his 1996 sophomore album It Was Written.
By the time Mobb Deep released the third installment of their illustrious catalog in late 1996, entitled Hell on Earth, the duo was already legendary. Havoc’s beat-making elevated him to being one of the most sought-after producers in the game, and P also perfected his craft, specializing in opening songs with the ferociousness of Mike Tyson charging out the corner after the opening bell. “Alright now, pay attention to the crime rhyme Houdini P / keeping you niggas in perspective / Mobb, representative; call me the specialist / professional, professor at this rap science / up in the laboratory, that's why your small rhymes bore me.” Verses like P’s from “G.O.D. Part III” set fire to the recording booth and stayed in heavy rotation on my Discman as I transitioned into my high school years.
Riding a wave into 1997 with the acclaim of their last two LPs, Mobb Deep also lent their brand to various soundtracks and gained enough industry clout to summon the god from an almost five-year sabbatical. Collaborating with Rakim for the title song of the Hoodlum soundtrack was no doubt another career highlight for the fellow Long Island native Prodigy.
I bought Murda Muzik in August of 1999, as I entered my senior year at Edmondson-Westside High School, and played it almost nonstop until Ghostface Killah dropped Supreme Clientele in February of 2000. As powerful as P’s 16 bar verses had consistently been since 1995, his content and flow proved to still be on the rise when he delivered what in my opinion was the lyrical performance of that year throughout the LP. “My spiral book, hold the world's most lethal / there's no cure, for what my pen do neither / bring the fever,” P bragged over “Allustrious.” Continuing to explain the Mobb’s distinct sound, P boasted, “Take a walk jerk this ain't Levert, Sweat and Johnny Gill / This is rap for real, somethin’ you feel / You catch a chill when you hear the Mobb bang through your stereo / It's heavy metal for the black people, rock'n'roll / but it's hip-hop though, my drug music / It's therapeutic to the user, you slam dance to it.”
Prodigy seemed to turn a corner with the release of Murda Muzik as well, showing the early signs of his deeper introspection as “Quiet Storm” ended with a brief pause from his usual gun bars for some self-reflection: “I spent too many nights sniffin' coke, gettin' right / wastin' my life, now I'm tryin' to make things right / grand open some gates, invest in the rag business / do things for the kids, the little Dunns / Build a jungle gym behind the crib, so they can enjoy youth / CBRs and VCRs, ATVs and big screen TVs / nigga please.”
Whether the old or new P, his rhymes catapulted him into the conversation of the best rappers in the world at the turn of the millennium, and he seized the lyrical acclaim from Mobb Deep’s Murda Muzik by releasing his debut solo album H.N.I.C. in November of 2000.
Only hours after graduating from the US Army’s Basic Combat training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, I rushed to the local postal exchange to pick up a copy of Prodigy’s new CD, and with no surprises one of my favorite lyricist delivered the rugged street rhymes that I was raised on: “I'm no shorty, nigga, I stop your glory / I'm a thorough street nigga for real, you just applaud me / Avoid P, man, take your baby mom's advice / I'm nothing sweet, ill with the guns, you pay the price / When you see me in the streets soldier, salute me / You just a groupie, oh, you gangsta? /Then shoot me.” “Keep it Thoro” became my personal anthem and introduced The Alchemist as an additional musical partner.
With perhaps too much of my favorite rapper’s rhymes and attitude in my step, I was literally ripped from the graduation stage at the culmination of my initial training when a sergeant yelled that people like me were ruining the Army, and that too many young hoods shouldn’t be allowed in the military. In my first experience away from Baltimore for an extended period, I came to realize that my section 8 housing background dangled around my neck, as vivid as one of Prodigy’s shiny 40-inch necklaces. Far from home, only weeks after my 18th birthday, I also saw how easily I could be mislabeled as someone looking for trouble, just because I wasn’t from an affluent background. Thankfully I could still take solace in the familiar voices of emcees like Prodigy, who scripted my life’s soundtrack up to this point.
Opening H.N.I.C. with “Genesis,” Prodigy’s reflections on reaching stardom while leaving a cloud of sorrow behind echoed some of my own thoughts, now that I had left home to begin my journey of manhood. “But you gotta understand how I feel / the pain and the hardship it took to build / years of frustration, some got killed / others fell vic' to the gates of steel / Most try to instill sanity still.”
Counted out by the moderate hip-hop listener after receiving an onslaught of attacks within the industry, you could see that Prodigy was affected by Jay-Z’s 2001 Summer Jam antics, the surprise attack from Mobb Deep’s long time affiliate Nas on Stillmatic’s “Destroy & Rebuild,” and the publicity of his volatile riff with the then up-and-coming artist Tru Life. The depth that Prodigy displayed on the H.N.I.C album only a year earlier should have shown his naysayers that he was built to last, particularly if they had listened to his autobiographical tale about his lifelong bout with sickle-cell anemia on “You Can Never Feel My Pain.”
Never one to back down, Prodigy heralded responses on mixtapes, Mobb Deep’s fifth album Infamy (2001), and on guest spots including their contribution to “Thun & Kickco” from the Queensbridge native Cormega’s 2001 debut LP The Realness. “You's a notebook crook, with loose leaf beef / a backseat criminal that pass the heat / to somebody that blast the heat / Man, it sound bad on the pad, what happened in the street?,” P called out to his unnamed adversary.
Although P’s return of fire was expected, the most memorable moments during this period came with his continued signs of his spiritual enlightenment, which shined through on “Nothin’ Like Home” from the Infamy album. “Livin' Like the Pharaoh Tut, I'm blessed with life / so I breathe deep and give praise to the most high / then I, get fresh for a new day / I eat broccoli for breakfast and smoke my trees.”
Returning to more of their signature sound in 2004 with the release of Amerikaz Nightmare, when juxtaposed with the more experimental Infamy album that preceded it, Prodigy appeared to gain his footing after weathering a storm of controversies.
Passing the milestone of having more than a decade in the game as one of hip-hop’s most relevant groups, the Mobb inked a deal with fellow Queens, NY controversy king 50 Cent’s G-Unit Records for the 2006 release of Blood Money. Now an OG in the game, P took advantage of the internet to call out the freshman class, once again finding himself embroiled in dissension.
In my mid ‘20s at the time, I was busy starting my own family and working long hours to establish myself as a career man. I admittedly became sort of a casual listener of Prodigy, who was like the once cool uncle whom I was catching up with in life. As a teen, you are inseparable from your mother’s thuggish baby brother who helped prepare you for street life, teaching you about gem star razors and allowing you sips of Barcardi Limon. Having cleaned up my own act, my music sense had expanded beyond the banana clip bars of Bandana P. But even as a casual observer, I could see that Prodigy was still one of the best in the game with the formidable 2007 Alchemist collaboration Return of the Mac and the long awaited sequel to his Y2K solo LP, 2008’s H.N.I.C. Pt. 2.
While H.N.I.C. Pt. 2 was still in heavy rotation along with Product of the 80’s (2008), his newest collaborative effort with Infamous Mobb Deep’s Big Twin & Un Pacino, the gun bar king was shipped off to Mid State Correctional Facility in Fort Dix, New Jersey for criminal charges of possessing illegal firearms. Ironically, one of my childhood anti-heroes was being housed on the same military installation I was frequently being sent to in order to help train National Guard troops on weapons ranges, as I had proved my own doubters wrong with almost eight years of successful military service under my belt.
I remember recognizing Prodigy’s spiritual growth, seeing the influence of the Brooklyn based Nuwaubian Nation in some of his prison letters when he referenced the organization’s founder Dr. Malachi York. I also saw that his beef hadn’t completely quelled with Jay-Z, as his named also appeared on the ink-smudged pieces of notebook paper.
By the time Prodigy touched down in 2011, I was settling well into my life as a full-fledged family man, approaching 30. I was married, expecting my second child and closing the deal on my very first home purchase. A long way from the wild after-school rumbles at West Baltimore Middle School, I was more excited about Albert Johnson, the author of My Infamous Life than Prodigy’s third installment to the H.N.I.C. trilogy. As a fan of the litany of emcees that hailed from Queensbridge, I was taken aback by some of the stories Prodigy disclosed in his memoir, but found it a good read nonetheless.
Finally taking his rightful place at the head of the rap table, P regained my undivided attention as he found his place as an elder statesman within the culture. He began to drop jewels, and speak with a wisdom that separated him from the back and forth type of bickering that had been common years earlier. In “Stronger” from his 2012 Bumpy Johnson LP, his smooth vocals breathed optimism over the melodic King Benny produced song that skillfully used every ounce of the Nina Simone “Four Women” sample: “The most high got a special plan just for me / my, table is set, with cake for days / I'm a lil' bit late but, it's okay / my future's so bright that I gotta wear shades / I follow in the footsteps of LL Cool J, 50 and P. Diddy / my relentless drive, to thrive and prosper, made me.”
Fully focused, Prodigy seemed to be aware that there were never as many as five emcees better than him on the planet, and he wasn’t afraid to show and prove on his second full length collaboration with Alchemist, Albert Einstein (2013). Invitations were sent to some of the best of the current class including Action Bronson and Roc Marciano, the latter selected to exchange bars with the veteran P over “Death Sentence,” where P went back to his Hell on Earth days expressing, “Cause so help me God / I will exorcise demons see 'em scheming real hard / Pop the cork on the Pérignon, or turn the Henny on / Spit my timeless flow, my priceless lexicon.”
Sadly, 2017 found me as excited about Prodigy as I had been since the early 2000s. He was frequently partnering with the Buffalo, NY team of Conway & Westside Gunn, and offered the keynote verse to my current favorite “Save Them.” The lead single for AZ’s anticipated album featured another valedictorian of the class of 1995 in Raekwon, with P closing the show, putting sucker emcees on notice: “Yeah, high-profile life, my verse is a gift from the most high / You should thank God for my rhymes / I don't condone bullshit bars / The fuck is you talking about? You just wanna be around stars.”
The loss of Albert “Prodigy” Johnson, in a sense, is the muting of the voice that expressed my youthful aggression as a teen and the fading of the small frame that embodied the bravado of my ‘20s. His incorporation of the dun language gave us all insight into life in Queensbridge, while his swag depicted the ambition of every kid from the Big Apple. His attitude represented for the whole East Coast, and his potent lyrics made him one of the best representatives for all of hip-hop. Each of his 42 years were hard fought and will not be in vain as his impact has earned an eternal spot of infamy.
“Out the slums of Queens, came a bunch of young gun niggas / The Infamous Mobb Deep / with dreams, of one day makin’ it big / with they Live Nigga Rap music, hard liquor swigs / dirty Timbs, thirsty grins / smile all up in your face then I break your chin / went platinum, now them niggas writin’ scripts / Murda Muzik the movie, pushin’ spaceships...”