Sunday, May 04, 2014

Hiphopnotism

When you nod your head it causes movement in your cerebrospinal fluid, inducing a semi-hypnotic state that is very relaxing, and nodding your head to music seems you physically at one with the sounds. Some of the best music produces an almost involuntary motion that also leads to a increase in our endorphins - an addictive experience that we seek out when hearing something new. I'm kind of making that up all that neuroscience as I go along, but there is probably a grain of truth behind it. A perfect example of this is the second album by Mobb Deep, The Infamous. Now 20 years old, this dark and dirty masterpiece keeps growing in stature, in no small part due to its unparalleled ability to hypnotize listeners.

The Mobb have released many good, and even great songs and albums since 1994 but The Infamous still reigns supreme. Part of the artistic success of The Infamous is down to the sheer sound of it: a warm, crackling murk of old jazz and soul records sliced open with thin, sharp drums and stitched together into haunting loops and sections. The mood is aggressive but with a scorched sorrow underneath it that is utterly compelling. While the rappers were obviously very young at the time, their flow has a naturalness that makes it like an elevated conversation among great storytellers. You can't help hanging on every word.

At this point, it seems likely that even Prodigy and Havoc, the duo that make up the Mobb, are aware of the exceptional nature of their landmark album, titling their new album The Infamous...Mobb Deep and putting a vintage photo on the cover. They've even gone so far as to package it with a second disc featuring outtakes and alternate cuts from the sessions that produced that earlier album. This can cut both ways: obviously, fans will want to hear the new old stuff, seeking another hit of that grimy goodness. On the other hand, the contrast between the archival material and the new tracks can make it hard to hear the latter on their own terms. The Infamous... is also their first album together in eight years and can be seen as a restart for the veterans, having weathered a beef that put them on hiatus for a while.

So, starting with the sonics, what are they giving us here? Overall, the album has a boxy, plastic sound with a spare, minimalist vibe. If a DJ weren't available, they could probably perform these songs using one of those old Sears organs with the built-in drum machine. This is not really a bad thing as Havoc, and the other producers they worked with weave some intriguing variations on this minimalist template.

The first song, Taking You Off Here, gets things off to a gritty start with barbed wire guitars, spooky organ, and a spliced in drum break. Prodigy and Havoc spit their tough talk with vigor but no standout lines. Say Something marries Vincent Price keyboards to that classic ticky-tack beat from Al Green's I'm Glad You're Mine, and has the rappers leaning into their verses. Prodigy especially mixes up his cadence to keep things interesting but the ultimate message is enumerated by Havoc: "Party after party, bitch, sticking to what got me rich."

Get Down has a funky hook from Prodigy and a guest spot from Snoop who sounds a bit less lazy than his other recent bars, while the lusher Timeless raises the tempo a little to explain that Mobb Deep is both timeless and priceless. "H (i.e. Havoc) the reason I'm dope now/I told him 'my brother I got this, we got this,'" Prodigy raps in a nice moment of brotherly love. In fact, they do sound like they're together on this album - you can imagine them trading verses on the same studio mic.

Like a lot late-career hip hop albums, most of the songs focus lyrically on how great they are, using violent or aspirational imagery to define their dominance. Most of time, this works OK as the energy is there and the beats are good. But this means when they turn their craft on another subject it stands out.

This is the case with Low, which is also the only song to feature a sung hook (a trend partially pioneered by Mobb Deep on Temperature's Rising) by Mack Wilds, a former cast member of The Wire now plying his trade in R'n'B. Prodigy and Havoc each take a verse to dissect love affairs gone wrong, one with his wife's best friend and the other with his best friend's widow. "Seems like a daytime soap or a movie on Lifetime/But, nah, this real life, it hurts," Prodigy raps, and they each add enough nuance and detail to put some meat on the familiar scenarios. As Havoc says, "It's more than just physical, 'cause mentally you stimulate me/And if I ain't up on it you just educate me." While there's still a thrill to the way they describe violent encounters, hearing them limn emotional ones provides a rush of a different kind.

Low falls in the middle of the album and the rest of the album reverts back to the braggadocio, with Legendary's upful attitude and a strong feature by Bun B making it the best of the lot. A few bonus tracks compile recent singles, including the gloriously moody Waterboarding and the rhythmically tricky Get It Forever.

The Infamous... is well above the fans-only cash grab it could have been but a couple of notches below a classic. While there's nothing here to tarnish the legacy, Prodigy's recent solo album Albert Einstein hits the heights more consistently.

Now, about that bonus disc...it consists of outtakes and alternate versions from the 1994 sessions that produced The Infamous, along with a couple short radio appearances from back then. The result? Instantaneous head nodding. It's got that murk, that insidious groove, that undeniable swing that made the earlier album so incredible. Mobb Deep were just on fire in the studio back then. So it's pure pleasure, more of the "raw, uncut" on which they built their rep. No doubt, Prodigy especially is technically a better rapper now, with a nimble pinpoint precision that has him toying with inflection and tempo line by line and sometimes word by word. But the younger Mobb had something really special - whether it was down to hunger or even a certain amateurism that breaks rules with impunity - something that still resonates today. It's like witnessing the forging of a mighty steel blade. There's heat, waste, and hard lessons learned, but the product is built to stand the tests of time and tribulation. Survival of the fittest - only the strong survive.

 

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