Queens Noir: Prodigy's Legacy In 25 Songs

 "I miss the dead, I wish the dead
Would please come back, I need your help
And everybody that got somebody deceased
I know you feel the same
Their spirit gone live through me"
- Prodigy, Veteran's Memorial, Pt. II

Note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on Mass Appeal's website in 2017. As it is not archived there, I have recreated it here now that Prodigy's music is once again available on streaming services.

It's hard to explain the alchemy that makes an artist special to you. Why did my gradual appreciation of Mobb Deep come to focus on Prodigy, making him a touchstone artist for me? I think there's the sense of achievement against great odds, which is always inspiring. But even before I knew about his sickle cell disease, which took him from us at the age of 42 last week, I think it was his place on a continuum of narrative that goes from Chandler and Hammett to MacDonald and then through to Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim. 

I love film noir and "blaxploitation" cinema and I used to listen to the first three Mobb Deep albums and imagine turning all the fragments of stories into a cinematic noir epic, wondering how the widescreen movie Prodigy (and Havoc, the other half of the duo) created in my mind could translate to the big screen. But rap is its own art form, and Prodigy's rhymes, in all their elliptical, schematic glory, are, at their best, perfect and complete in their own right. 

So I admired his craft and was entertained and fascinated by his lurid and indelible descriptive powers, but it became something more than that. There was the New York connection, something we talked about the second time I met him, and the sense of adversity overcome, which could explain why I really got into his music only after my son died from cancer. Prodigy turned pitch-black reality into artistic and popular gold, becoming a star on his own terms, making the world his home when his disease threatened to confine him to a hospital bed. 

Of course we know the myth of something from nothing is just that - a myth - so I was intrigued to read about Prodigy's musical ancestry in his memoir, My Infamous Life. His mother was a member of a late incarnation of The Crystals and his grandfather was a professional jazz saxophonist. A surprising number of hip hop avatars have deep musical roots, belying those who would question the genre's validity. The wild card in this lineage was his "pops," a thief who was locked up for much of his son's childhood. Prodigy took the hand that was dealt him and tried to honor the better parts of his DNA, while acknowledging the temptations of darkness. This added dimension to my understanding of the man and his music, which has been a constant companion. 

When it comes to artists I love, I'm always working on "the tape" in my mind, that concise collection of songs that will show all their facets and give newcomers the breadcrumbs they need to find more of what they like. Going in, I had a pretty good idea of some of the tracks that were musts to include and my initial impulse was to go for 20 tracks featuring some of my favorites by Mobb Deep and Prodigy. It wasn't so easy, however, as the first three Mobb Deep albums are stunningly consistent, and Return Of The Mac, the Bumpy Johnson Album and Albert Einstein are very complete listening experiences. Also, there were a few things I missed along the way and some songs that sounded better than I remembered. So I expanded the scope and created Queens Noir: Prodigy's Legacy In 25 Songs, keeping to a reasonable length without too many egregious omissions. Of course, that's open to debate and I welcome any counter-arguments!

It also must be said that the process of making this playlist reminded me why I still have my 120GB iPod Classic: Not everything is available on Spotify. While Prodigy's solo career is pretty well-represented on the platform, there are some notable absences from the Mobb Deep discography, especially on the song level. The tense and slinky Waterboarding, from  Black Cocaine, a strong EP from 2011, showcases Prodigy at his most hypnotic and would have been a candidate for the mix, as would have Dead Man Shoes from the same release. It was their first since Prodigy had served a three year sentence for gun possession - imagine the same thing happening to Billy Joel, another New York icon with Long Island origins. 

Their last album, The Infamous Mobb Deep from 2014, is also not on the platform (it's also out of print - - copies go for at least $50), and, while uneven, has a couple of standout tracks, like Taking You Off Here and especially Low, a soap opera in miniature. That record was packaged with a disc of outtakes from 1995, always fascinating, as was The Infamous Archives, which was packed with unreleased gems like Everyday Gun Play and S*** Hits The Fans. Follow up on those songs if you can, and also seek out some classic guest spots, which I left off to keep the focus on Prodigy. You could make a whole separate list of his best features, which would have to include I Shot Ya by LL Cool J and LA LA by Capone'n'Noreaga with Mobb Deep and Tragedy - more can be found here.


 1. Intro (Redemption Songs) - From Complex Presents Prodigy: The Hnic3 Mixtape (2012) Many classic hip hop albums start with an intro, and this is a great example of Prodigy's late style, passionately precise, a little deliberate, and very much a New Yorker . A hard-earned view "from the top of the world," the music glints like the city at night and there are some great lines: "Is there a heaven and hell? You will find out if you get in my way" and "I pop pain, AK's and currency bands/My skid marks on fire, I peel away so fast." I also threw it on at the beginning to contrast with what comes next. 

2. Too Young - from Boyz N The Hood Original Soundtrack (1991) Recorded when he was 15, this uncredited feature is the first time Prodigy appeared on a record. And probably the last time he sounded exuberant - but he had flow, and landed perfectly on "too young" at the end of his 16 bars.

3-4. Survival Of The Fittest and Shook Ones, Pt II from The Infamous (1995) This is where the legend begins. Their first album, Juvenile Hell, had its moments but was overall unfocused and failed to gain traction. After Nas, who was from the same Queens neighborhood, "embarrassed" them with Illmatic, Prodigy and Havoc woodshedded hard and came up with one of the most undeniable albums of the 90's - in any genre. Havoc's gritty production, featuring well-worn jazz records from their parents' collections, was a game changer, and by sticking to their immediate surroundings, they struck lyrical gold. Prodigy's lines include some of the greatest ever committed to wax: "Rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone," or "Your crew is featherweight/My gunshots'll make you levitate," or "When the slugs penetrate you feel a burning sensation/Getting closer to god in a tight situation." Bleak, vivid, essential.

5-6. Drop A Gem On'Em and Hell On Earth (Front Lines) from Hell On Earth (1996) There really wasn't a bad song on The Infamous, but no one expected another classic just a year later. Too many good songs to choose from, but these two represent the quality level. The first clapped back at 2Pac, who had said something unkind about Mobb Deep. Prodigy coming on strong with lines like: "You look suspicious, suspect ni**as is bitches/Get chopped up, Grade-A meat, something delicious/And laced back up, 2 G's worth of stitches/To reconstruct your face and learn how to speak again." The specificity of the medical bill ("2 G's worth of stitches") is a special Prodigy touch. Practically every stanza is quotable in Hell On Earth (Front Lines) - just a sample: "I was born to take power, leave my mark on this planet/The Phantom of Crime Rap, ni**as is left stranded/Shut down your operation, closed for business/Leave a foul taste in your mouth like Guinness." Can't you just taste the Irish Stout?

7. Quite Storm from Murda Muzik (1999) Their fourth album was also quite consistent but contained this outsized single, which not only helped it go platinum, but spread East Coast Rap further than ever before. Prodigy takes all the verses and they range from revealing (his pops taught him "how to shoot when I was seven") to devastatingly clever braggadocio: "First assignment, give 'em that shit they been missin'/My new edition's way bitchin'/Those that listen get addicted to my diction/Fuck rhymes, I write prescriptions for your disease/Generic raps just not potent like P's."

8. Keep It Thoro from H.N.I.C (2000) The purple patch continued with Prodigy's first solo album, which contained this strutting slice of beautiful bravado. Excerpt: "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." The production was by Alchemist, who would become one of Prodigy's closest collaborators.

9-10. Bounce and Hey Luv (Anything) feat. 112 from Infamy (2000) The seams started to show on the fifth album, and that fast living was taking its toll on Prodigy was obvious on Bounce, but he powers through, his voice almost sepulchral on what's supposed to be a party track. But he showed up. LL Cool J had pioneered the hip hop love song with I Need Love back in 1987, but it was still controversial when Mobb Deep came out with Hey Luv (Anything), which featured R&B group 112. Prodigy modulates his flow into a reassuring burr and sounds completely convincing with lines like, "Hey love, I wanna hold you and talk to you/Put my arm around your shoulder and walk with you." Gangsters have feelings, too - and Mobb Deep proved to be more versatile than many expected. They wouldn't attempt another romantic endeavor until 2014, however, when they collaborated with Mack Wilds on Low from their last album.

11-12. Put'Em In Their Place and Daydreaming from Blood Money (2006) I wasn't feeling the sixth album, Amerikaz Nightmare from 2004, but they came back strong when they linked up with 50 Cent's G-Unit - although many people disagreed with that sentiment! While there were a few lazy tracks on the record, Put'Em In Their Place seemed to borrow it's swagger from a 30's crime flick and Prodigy came loaded for bear with lines like: "Yo, I was schooled by the hood, raised by the wolves/Trained by the pain, adopted by guerrillas/Gotta tank for a car, ice for a arm/Got tattoos wit' skin and scars from brawls/Gotta buildin' for a crib, Manhattan for a backyard." There was also a sense of maturity in songs like Pearly Gates and Daydreaming. Prodigy's skill at creating hooks is not often commented upon, but that last song is a great example: "Daydreamin' of dirt bikes, and four wheelers/Shoppin' sprees at the diamond dealer/Hats and jackets, shirts, pants and sneakers/That brand new car smell/We schemin' daydreamin' of penthouses in L.A/The illest yachts, the hottest broads they make/Can't wait 'til it's my turn to get dough/So I don't gotta fuckin' daydream no more." Not only does it mesh perfectly with the sitar-driven beat and capture the fantasies of a 14-year-old, but the way he bites off the last four words makes them seem freighted with centuries of frustration and rage.

13-15. Return Of The Mac, Mac 10 Handle, and Nickel And A Nail from Return Of The Mac (2007) No guests. One producer. A classic. This collaboration with Alchemist was originally supposed to be a casual mixtape in advance of the next album proper, but turned out to be one of the best hip hop albums of the new millennium. Pick any track to find 100% soul and funk-drenched urban noir, with lines like "Guzzle the whole bottle: that's the New York sip," or "I ain't even wiping my sweat; it's keeping me cool." The third song I picked finds Prodigy in dialog with the O.V. Wright classic: "All I got in my pocket is a nickel and a nail/The fully loaded .25, with one extra bullet on the side." He was fully loaded, no doubt.

16-17. Veteran's Memorial, Pt. 2 and Field Marshal P from H.N.I.C. 2 (2008) When the next album came the following year, it was not as consistent as Return Of The Mac, but still contained its fair share of great songs. Veteran's Memorial, Pt. 2 was anchored by the hook at the top of this post and found Prodigy ruminating over his life, telling stories like this one: "I remember me and him stuck a jewelry store/He did the sticking; I was in the get-a-way car/Pops came out with a big bag full of jewelry/We had a high speed chase with Nassau County/I was eight years old, my pops was drama/They locked him up and sent me home to mama." Field Marshal P is a bitter unleashing against corrupt cops and others in power who conspire against the righteous, with Prodigy's army assembling behind a lethal groove from Havoc.

18. Extreme from Complex Presents The H.N.I.C. 3 Mixtape (2012) After three years in prison, Prodigy needed little incentive to get back to work and he sounds young and hungry on this stripped down delight. Over nothing but drums, he wants you to know that "I take it to the extreme you got a problem with P/I won't stop until the sun burn out, it's you and me/I don't stop till the casket drop/And you'll see, you keep fucking with me." It seems he may have someone specific in mind when he spits, "I'm-a catch you in the audience in your seat, VH1 Awards or MTV/Maybe at the ballet, right after you eat in that little restaurant you thought was sweet." Hmm, who could it be?

19. G-Up from H.N.I.C. 3 (Deluxe) (2012) Prodigy's first solo album after his release from prison was a frank disappointment, as he seemed to be trying too hard for a commercial hit. This bonus track was one of the bright spots, with Prodigy spitting at a faster clip than usual, inspired by the dense Afro-pop producer Oh No cooked up. The verses are pure victory lap, filled with almost playful threats and boasts: "I'll pluck your petal from the flower of life," he says, almost playfully, and "I'm getting all the pancakes, drinking Champagne like syrup."

20-22. Twilight, Black Devil, and Stronger from The Bumpy Johnson Album (2013) This started out as free download, possibly in penance for H.N.I.C. 3, and was then expanded into an album that was another unexpected artistic success. Twilight was uncut Queens noir with a hook that was a short story in its own right: "The hood in the twilight you hear guns bark/Street lamps getting shot out to keep the block dark/We post up in the blackness of the shadows/Where only crack heads and dope fiends dare travel/Where police enter at they own risk/If you not from this hood get yo ass out the bricks/Most bodies get caught at night/You'll be choking on blood staring up at the stars in the twilight." Hemingway would've offered up a Cuban cigar for that one. Black Devil was a dissection of backstabbing and dissembling in all its forms and includes many memorable observations, including: "But behind closed doors/What really goes on is/Ritualistic, cannibalistic, sadistic, masochistic/Some real sick shit." In Stronger, Prodigy harnessed a Nina Simone sample to ruminate on how far he had come and all the ways his love for NYC inspires him - and keeps him out of trouble: "Maybe once every, tangerine moon, I'll be in the mood/To paint the town red with your corpuscles/And plasma; some violent art/These thoughts, in the corners of my mind are dark/But then the Times Square lights, they switch my whole attitude."

23-24. Give'Em Hell and Confessions from Albert Einstein (2014) For their second album-length collaboration, Prodigy and Alchemist almost hit the same highs as Return Of The Mac, with nearly every song carefully polished to a rich shine. Give'Em Hell put Prodigy deep in the groove to deliver clever aggression in dense rhymes: "I am – slippery when wet off that 'maldehyde/Smoke a Dutch full of dust, pull a homo/Niggas wouldn’t side with you if they knew what I know." Dig the way he amputates "formaldehyde" and then delays the rhyme, saying "homo" instead of "homicide," then throwing "side" into the next line. For Confessions, Alchemist conjures up a cinematic backdrop for Prodigy's tale of a conflicted killer. It's an IMAX production in 3:35 and you may find it hard to breathe until it's over: "I saw his radio lights through the rear tint/I stepped in front of the car so he could see the hit/The look on his face was priceless/The bitch micro braids caught fire when the fifth/Put pieces of her wig on the seats in the back/Now there's weed smoke pouring out the bullet hole glass." Prodigy at his best made his words worth a thousand pictures.

25. Mafucking U$A from Hegelian Dialectic (The Book Of Revelation ) (2017) Prodigy's final album slid into my Spotify without notice, and took a while to grow on me. It was just the week before he died when I found myself getting deeply into it, enjoying his syrupy drawl and finding food for thought on a variety of topics. While he was too skeptical of the corridors of power, he did get political - the end of this song includes a sample of someone saying "This time, vote as if your life depended on it.” It's a mostly optimistic song, however, and contains this forward thinking verse: "Life to us is like Play-Doh/We just shape the shit how we want it/Come graduate from that old school/This is higher learning, we past that/Take a leap of faith and just let go/We waitin' for you in the aftermath/Behind the wizard's curtain."

Albert "Prodigy" Johnson his now in his "aftermath" - and a lot sooner than we expected - and we are in ours. But as you shape your life the way you want, remember to be inspired by what he did with his, and against what odds.

"Gangsters don't die, they just turn into legends."
- Prodigy, Legends, Return Of The Mac

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