This review of ‘The Infamous’ originally appeared in the August 1995 issue of Spin. We are republishing it now in the light of Prodigy’s passing.
Just after premiering as a full-grown MC, Mobb Deep’s Prodigy busts a little rap criticism. His unrhymed, two-minute screed on track two ends with “To all the rap ass niggas with ya half-assed rhymes / Talk about how much you get high / How much weed you smoke / And all that crazy space shit that don’t even make no sense / Don’t even speak to me.” In other words: Keep it real.
It’s no faint praise to say that Mobb Deep actually makes that shopworn admonition mean something. In the mikes and notebooks of Prodigy and partner Havoc, (both from hip-hop’s Liverpool, the Queensbridge Housing Projects), the phrase “keep it real” functions a little like that old Journalism 101 bromide “show, don’t tell.” And if any one quality runs through ‘Bridge alums from MC Shan to Nas, it’s that unhurried, no-frills verisimilitude; an allergy to purple prose, spiraling metaphors, and crazy space shit that don’t make sense.
Instead, what we get is state-of-the-art East Coast reportage: drug-selling, police-fleeing, and homie-dying vignettes, all told with vivid detail and a deadpan thousand-yard flow. Formerly the teen dup Poetic Prophets, Prodigy and Havoc make it amply clear that they’ve packed a lot more street living and skill-honing into their 20 years than most peers. After asserting, “Every day of my life since 11/2/74 / On the street makin’ nonstop cream galore,” they drop specifics like “I’m from Hempstead / It’s close to the shacks in Park South.”
An almost Ivy League confidence in birthright, experience, and rhyme-manship renders these understated verses so undeniable: “Temperature’s Rising” draws pathos from a rhymed phone call to an on-the-lam brother; “Trite Life” recalls a subway ride to an old girlfriend’s borough, with a six-member crew along for protection; and the instant classic “Eye for a Eye” lays out a loyalty oath with stellar verses by Nas and Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon the Chef (who rhymes “cornea” with “up on ya”–not to be tried without a Staten Island accent). And just when you’re ready to dismiss abstract rhyming as the stuff of sissies, producer Q-Tip hijacks “Drink Away the Pain” with characters like his nigga Tommy Hilfiger and some trick named Donna Karan, laying out a staggering, verse-long morality play about materialism. If only to clock a stunning panoply of mike skills, The Infamous is indispensable.
Which is not to say that it doesn’t sound great, too. While the pat line on ’90s rap sonics is that on the East Coast form follows function, these beats are hardly utilitarian, mixing warm, old Quest-style Blue Note whispers, gritty snares, and stark keyboard chimes like Satie or Bill Evans with an MPC-60. Hearing Havoc and Prodigy testify is a little like following 14-year-old Jim Carroll through the hold-ups, shooting galleries, and poetical gymnastics in The Basketball Diaries. You have to wonder what they’ll be like when they’re old enough to drink.