This review of ‘Hell on Earth’ originally appeared in the January 1997 issue of Spin. In light of Prodigy’s passing, we are republishing it now.
Mobb Deep are out to shit on those who split on them. Havoc, the outfit’s Napolean-size producer/poet, grew up, like Nas, Marley Marl, and Roxanne Shanté, in New York’s surreal Queensbridge Housing Projects. Prodigy is his suburban-reared rapping other half, the good cop to Havoc’s bad one as Hell on Earth, the duo’s third album, pursues retribution like Charles Bronson in the Death Wish flicks. If the subject matter is somewhat limited to this “I’m gonna get you first, sucka” motif–reflected in ditties like “Blood Sport” (“This ain’t rap / It’s blood sport / Your life cut short”) and “Get Dealt With” (“My live niggas in the back / Got the gats blowing out of your back”)–well, Mobb Deep’s big payback always sounds bitchin’.
It was the subtle keyboard clamor of 1994’s “Shook Ones Pt. 2,” sedating you and stimulating you at once, in a guileless high, that solidified Mobb Deep’s position as the East Coast’s reigning drama lords. Hell on Earth pursues a similar percussion-and-bass gumbo of sound. Straight-ahead war drums pounce out conversations with light strings, electric pianos, ancient videogame sound effects, and, on “Nighttime Vultures,” pissed-off buzzard shrieks.
Very occasionally, you’ll hear a longing for sanctuary inside Mobb Deep’s insanity. “Dreams of growing old with my song,” beams a warm Prodigy on “Apostle’s Warning,” his voice shimmering with earnestness. Havoc, more typically, concocts a love-triangle hostage situation in “More Trife Life,” warning one of his soldiers “don’t never go see a bitch.” We don’t know if Havoc lives or dies. What matters, according to the Thugster’s Handbook, is that his manhood remains in check; that in the face of doom Havoc flexes his middle finger.