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Mobb Deep’s sophomore LP The Infamous is one of rap’s new school bastard children – it is often evaluated in isolation from its forbearers. The duo’s mostly forgettable debut LP Juvenile Hell (1992, 4th and B’Way) was recorded while Prodigy and Havoc were still adolescents and only briefly foreshadows the highly accelerated artistic development that must have taken place before its follow-up The Infamous was released in April of 1995. At the time Juvenile Hell was received as a tolerable post-Kris Kross effort, a novelty record on par with material released by Da Youngstas and Chi-Ali.
Juvenile Hell’ s most inspired glimpse into future infamy is undoubtedly Large Professor’s ominous remix of “Peer Pressure.” This cut, which is almost entirely carried by Large Pro’s varied and substantial drums, is more notable as a connecting branch on The Infamous family tree than as a demonstration of natural talent. Mobb Deep’s musical geneaology is perhaps the most important cipher to understanding and appreciating Infamous short of the album itself.
The Infamous is most recognizably akin to Nas’s Illmatic (1994, Columbia), the most acclaimed recording to emerge from the now legendary Queensbridge housing projects, recorded just as the essence of adolescence exited Nas’s earthly frame. In the mid-90s, adoring fans and reviewers made the claim that Nas was a bonafide musical/poetic prodigy. According to his believers, Nas was a reincarnated Rakim, a genius introvert who rose out of the rubble of Reaganomics to bless the mic with a forward brand of introspective, redemptive street poetry.
Admittedly, this folkloric cycle owe its pervasiveness in no small part to Nas’s continual self-representation as a latter-day ‘hood prophet, a mythology which was likely fueled by Q-Tip’s early descriptions of Nas as an enigmatic “ghetto monk.” It is important to note, however, that Illmatic’s narration glorifies the emergent poetic self as the embodiment of an elevated creative state that is potentially attainable by most any ghetto child under the correct tutelage. Even shorties caught up in the system could plausibly partake in Nas’s heroic, inspired ascension.
Nas’s egoist egalitarianism was not new under the 1994 sun. Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Nas himself have observed its historical antecedents in the overlapping philosophies and strategies of the 5%er and Zulu Nation movements. During Nas’s childhood in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s these quasi-mystic youth groups championed both individual empowerment and a devotion to the teachings of charismatic leaders. Together, they held a tight grip over the consciousness of Black and Latino youth in New York City. Much like the tireless founders and spokespersons of those organizations, Nas lucidly addressed his audience without insulting their intelligence.
More importantly, Nas maintained an unshakable faith in the potential of kids trapped in circumstances far worse than his own to transcend paralyzing socio-economic conditions while retaining their street smarts. If Rakim was new school rap’s first widely acknowledged poet laureate, then Nas was a most logical successor, re-anchoring his elder’s cerebral intergalactic voyages in the earthly devastation and despair of the ruined American city from which it rose. The gospel and ministry of Nas was point-blank on some understandable smooth shit—Illmatic seeks to clarify life’s confusion but also to deconstruct the puzzling, troubling lives of self-destructive young men.
Illmatic’s narrative voice swerves between personas that are cynical and optimistic, naïve and world-weary, enraged and serene, globally conscious and provincial. Nas, like his heroes Rakim, Grandmaster Caz and others, intuitively understood that self-representation and broad abstraction were bound to converge and then merge in rap lyrics. After all, the life of a kid in the projects is lived just as much inside one’s wise dome as it is whittled away on the street corner. It can be varied, ironic, and downright strange just as it can be mundane, empty, or aimless.
Nas was a most worthy candidate to craft a palatable and subversive message for the rotten apple’s disenfranchised youth. He was young and observant enough to isolate and analyze the positively formative moments of a project childhood while unflinchingly documenting the tragedies. Throughout lllmatic, listeners are implored to embrace their hardened upbringing as an imperative to move on to bigger and better things, both in the intellectual and material sense.
It seems odd then, that Havoc and Prodigy, a duo so clearly influenced by Illmatic’s plus degrees, are not viewed by many critics as similarly insightful or multivocal poets. As is the case with many musicians who are labeled “gangsta” rappers, Mobb Deep’s music has been interpreted as a literal autobiographical exposé as well as an unthinking advocacy of merciless criminal activity. However, both Nas and Mobb Deep make use of poetic stylization to portray a reality so dismal that an unlikely combination of cartoonishly violent escapism, detached reportage, bleak apocalyptic lamentation, and (occasionally) mature reflection comprises the most logical and productive poetic response.
In the tradition of Caz, Rakim, and Big Daddy Kane, among others, Nas maintained that the poetic response to the ghetto environs could reshape those environs, thus extending the once insular vision of the street poet outwards towards the larger world of imaginative possibility. Where the raw materials necessary for artistic expression or the luxury and repose conducive to honest introspection are lacking, the street poet imagines and thus constructs places and spaces where his creativity can be cultivated. At times these spaces closely resemble the ones traversed every day. In the case of Nas and Mobb Deep, however, these realms stretch beyond the walls of Queensbridge, in the direction of the working-class Black neighborhoods of north-central and southeastern Queens.
Whether denouncing rap music as a glorification of criminal activity or defending so-called gangsta rap as literalized “reality music,” critics often downplay the extent to which artists like Mobb Deep draw on influences and images that originate outside of their most immediate childhood haunts. As a result Mobb Deep is severed from two of its most obvious and direct inspirations: the music of borough brethren Main Source (Flushing) and A Tribe Called Quest (Jamaica). The denial of Havoc and Prodigy’s parentage is made even more ironic by the overt mentoring roles that Q-Tip and Large Professor played during the recording sessions of Illmatic as well as Infamous. These Q-Boro network reps are also bonded by Large Pro’s contributions, acknowledged in shout-out and liner notes, to Tribe’s third LP, the infinitely acclaimed Midnight Marauders (1993, Jive).
In fact, Large Pro’s role as a mentor to up and coming Queens acts was already established by the early 90s. He was himself one of Paul C.’s many studio disciples, a bonafide student-teacher. “Live At The BBQ,” the famous posse cut off of Main Source’s debut Breakin’ Atoms, features the world premieres of Nas and Lefrak City native Akineyle (whose 1993 debut Vagina Diner is entirely produced by Large Pro). Large Pro even worked with Mobb Deep on the remix of “Funk Mode,” their 1993 collaboration with Tragedy the Intelligent Hoodlum, Queensbridge’s first militant rebel youth poet (who Nas cites as an influence) and himself the future mentor to Lefrak City’s Capone-N-Noreaga.
In this extended family, professional and musical expertise is ritually transmitted from one generation to the next. It can be said that Large Pro actually mentored Q-Tip in the art of mentorship, as their Midnight Marauders collaboration anticipates Tip’s involvement in the recording of The Infamous. The influence of Marauders, itself an extension and improvement upon the musical formula that made Main Source’s Breakin’ Atoms such an undeniable classic, is palpable during Infamous’s darkest moments.
One of Marauders’ many highlights is “Midnight,” a pulsating excerpt of highly obscure ‘70s guitar rock that hovers anxiously over stark drums kits and menacing low-end sounds. Over this moody, disquieting music, Q-Tip delivers his first and most successful inner-city State of The Union address. The Abstract Poet’s observations are thoughtfully diffused across two verses, the first a piercingly descriptive narrative of a night on the town and the second a keenly detached overview. This effortless employment of differing perspectives within a single song proves to be highly influential to Mobb Deep’s forever shifting, often contradictory commentaries on the street life.
The street level consciousness of “Midnight” is hardly opaque and contradicts years of criticism that broad brushes Tribe as middle-class “Afrocentric Bohemians” or forerunners of “jazz-rap” or “alterna-rap” movements that never really happened. “Midnight,”—and Tribe’s early catalogue in general—along with Breakin’ Atoms, closely anticipates Mobb Deep’s sonic evolution during the middle to late ’90s. Many of the themes covered on Infamous and later Mobb albums—including literal and figurative warfare, emotional and physical suffering, and artistic and racial double-consciousness—are also famously tackled throughout the discographies of Tribe and Main Source.
Mobb Deep’s penchant for coldly ironic allegory, for example, has plenty of precedent on Breakin’ Atoms. Large Pro expertly depicts life in Queens as a sky-high stakes game of cee-lo in moralistic, cautionary and downright paranoid terms on “Snake Eyes.” In the anti-cop extended metaphor “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball,” Large Pro delivers the war report with unprecedented stoic clarity over a devastating break (which also appears on Tribe’s “If the Papes Come” remix from the same year). All of these characters reappear on The Infamous as potentially deadly forces that must be undermined and avoided lest one pay the ultimate price (which switches unpredictably from outright death to the mental death of imprisonment to simply losing one’s street cred).
Tribe offers a slightly different, but nonetheless complementary approach. In “Midnight” the same shady characters that populate Breakin’ Atoms—snitches, hustlers, stick-up kids, trife bitches, corrupt cops, and regular street dwellers—are recast as interconnected entities. Q-Tip burrows into the same tragic everydayness of the trife life, but instead annunciates the necessity of togetherness, commanding his “nation” to remain “rugged and rough” in trying times. Mobb Deep’s verbalized allegiance to their “Queens Nation,” as it is termed on their own “Q.U. Hectic,” is a similarly deliberate espousal of authenticity, a problematic and ambiguous value that is nevertheless held in high regard, at least nominally, in hip hop culture and in urban America.
This tenuous union of artistic and “national” concerns can be interpreted as a tactical rallying cry, the kind that was famously articulated in the abstract by Chuck D. on “Don’t Believe The Hype,” and more concretely by Ice Cube on “True To The Game.” Although Prodigy utters this declaration of independence as an understated ad-lib at the end of the song, it illustrates the importance that these outwardly nonchalant ghetto dwellers place on musical integrity and extended familial loyalty. The major difference between Mobb Deep and Q-Tip (an by extension, Nas) is perhaps that Havoc and Prodigy remain more wary of the person next-door, never too hopeful that they can build a sturdy coalition in such a chaotic, violent climate. Crew comes first, nation second where possible.
Incredibly, Infamous is a more expansive and penetrating work than the sum of its more celebrated influences. To their immense credit as scholars of hip hop, Havoc and Prodigy express a great willingness to examine their surroundings from shifting points of view and speak on behalf of markedly different perspectives (they even go so far as to describe a Brooklyn-Queens war from both sides on “Trife Life”). Their extreme mistrust of anyone who does not fit into their ironically narrow vision of a “nation,” (which is really just a code for an extended crew) actually facilitates the exhaustiveness of their analysis: rather than vague calls for “unity” we find intricate narratives of justified aggression and sensible insularity.
In Mobb Deep’s world, which is rendered in equally realistic psychological and physical detail, even one’s own crew and one’s own self are subject to interrogation and the possibility of eternal rebuke. Authenticity is prized but never taken for granted. The paranoia of Infamous does not allow for the adoption of one single system of morality or one neat explanation for how or why systematic violence dominates life in the ghetto. In an astounding show of sensitive artistry, the despair that Havoc and Prodigy express over the seeming lack of philosophical, spiritual, or even perceptual resolution in Queensbridge’s earthly hell corresponds closely to the musical environment that Q-Tip helps them to construct.
The still youthful Havoc and Prodigy find themselves trying to locate their own artistic voices and discursive spaces in a landscape that is partly built by their teachers but can also be considered the strange new product of their increasing artistic independence. Even on the songs where Q-Tip’s influence is apparent and duly noted, it is clear that he creates a musical vibe with Mobb Deep in mind, adding more of a “spacey” or otherworldly feel than one might encounter on a Tribe record (which is of course highly ironic in light of Prodigy’s hilarious jabs at Keith Murray on “Just Step Interlude”). Likewise, songs credited entirely to Mobb Deep like “Trife Life” or “Q.U. Hectic” cannot help but betray their tribal ancestry and yet an display entirely new style perfectly consonant with the disorienting psycho-spiritual crisis that runs through Infamous.
While one can discern an obvious path from Tribe’s “Midnight” and Main Source’s “Friendly Game” to Infamous’s pitch black tracks “Eye For An Eye” and “Q.U. Hectic,” the closest sonic relative of the majority of The Infamous is surprisingly Tribe’s debut long-player People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990, Jive/RCA). Infamous pairs the hardest drums and rawest ghetto music of PITPOR with lyrics that are poignant and detached, malicious and mournful. Foreboding bass lines coexist with bright bursts of atmospheric, melodious funk beautifully stitched together from amusingly disparate source material that is often filtered beyond immediate recognition. Sadistic and indifferent rants are punctuated by moments of profundity and on rare occasion, cautious optimism.
In a sense, Infamous is PITPOR vindicated, indisputable evidence that the adoption of a wider frame of musical and cultural reference need not be interpreted as a permanent vacation from the ghetto. In fact, Breakin’ Atoms, PITPOR, Illmatic, and to a greater extent, Infamous prove just the opposite, that the very rhythms of ghetto life can be illuminated and conveyed with help from supposed weirdoes like Cannonball Adderly and Lou Reed. In the album’s center, Tribe’s left-of-center influence runs deep; “Give Up the Goods” is produced by Q-Tip, while “Temperature’s Rising” sees Tip and the Mobb sharing the credits, the surest sign of a collaboration based on mutual respect and dialogic instruction.
“Give Up The Goods,” much like Onyx’s “Stikkenmuve” and Biggie’s “Gimme Da Loot,” is a celebratory stick-up kid anthem that is refreshingly unburdened by the cautionary moralism one finds in Gangstarr’s “Just To Get a Rep.” Prodigy, Havoc, and guest Big Noyd sound as animated and cheery as the Questers kicking routines on Linden Boulevard. Though Prodigy’s rhymes tend to instinctively travel all over the track, land in any nook or cranny that feels comfortable, and restart at odd intervals, Q-Tip’s snares are varied enough to give the man just enough space to sound as if his style is truly reined in and controlled. Thus, riding the rhythm becomes an appropriate metaphor for survival in an uncertain world, and the moments where Prodigy pauses to allow his rhyme to catch the snare are akin to moments of reflection or calculation that allow the smarter street soldier to outlive his peers.
Infamous takes place in this purgatorial internal/external “danger zone,” of limited movement and options. Mobb Deep resist and explore the “cross-fire” of disruption, relocation, pathology, legal entanglement, and vexing psycho-spiritual conflict through rhyme. Sometimes this state of mind is shocking, numbing or even paralyzing: Havoc describes being “trapped between two worlds” on “Survival of the Fittest.” At other times, it is partly liberating – in a space of six blocks that one “might not make it through” (as described on “Right Back At You”) one has no choice but to move as covertly as an assassin and as fast as a cheetah. The street life can be exhilarating and even addictive. Mobb Deep are just as inclined to celebrate the horrors of this life as they are to wallow in its ruination, in no small part because reveling in chaos helps to distinguish them from their elders and their competitors in a crowded music market.
It is on “Give Up The Goods” where Havoc and Prodigy most vividly illustrate the psychological terrain of their little piece of turf, the 41st side. They do so by, taking full advantage of Q-Tip’s beat, which is downright spacey in every aspect. The ethereal samples are simply sprawling, spilling out across the track. Q-Tip leaves the break bare just as Prodigy swiftly runs through many of the modes of expression and that comprise the conflicted, nearly contradictory philosophies found throughout the album. In just a few lines Prodigy celebrates the joys of alcohol (which he famously personifies and extols in an unusual show of loyalty on Drink Away The Pain) and upholds his notion of street authenticity, which, in true hip hop tradition, necessitates that his pupils respect his gusto but choose not to emulate his actions or question his motives.
Among the modes of expression found throughout Infamous is Prodigy’s inevitable and bizarre dalliance in street pedagogy. On “Give Up The Goods” he steers potential competitors away from risking a life-threatening confrontation. He requests that those who are “caught up in the crossfire” or lost “on the wrong route” allow him to put them on their feet and kick the real facts: namely, that the streets is “no joke, no games.” Those who ignore will be injured. This a perverse form of mentorship, to be certain, but it makes perfect sense to Mobb Deep, who not only mistrust the ‘hood characters that Large Pro once described, but often presume such archetypes to be a downtrodden lot, an eternally damned horde, largely unteachable and unreformable.
Much like Smif-N-Wessun, Mobb Deep obsess over the perpetual “war outside” that is “similar to Vietnam” (“Survival of the Fittest”) and describe their enemies in militaristic terms, referring to “battalions” of Brooklyn-bred troops on “Trife Life.” However, the war that Mobb Deep describes is not merely criminal or even political, although it contains shades of those kinds of conflicts. This war is most certainly a spiritual one. If this war is in fact waged internally, then the outer world must be interpreted according to its stiflingly paranoid parameters – the consequences of treachery and disloyalty are psychological and permanent. On “Survival of the Fittest,” Prodigy states rather seriously that even if he fails to kill his enemies he will “leave ‘em scarred” which they will not soon forget, while Havoc warns foes that any attempts at resistance will result in hurt feelings.
Indeed, Mobb Deep imagine an existence in which psychological anguish and crushing ambivalence and confusion are absolutely permanent. Physical death is to be avoided, but it is hardly the worst fate that can befall an individual. On “Cradle To the Grave” imprisonment is described as a kind of impermanent death that might be reversed at the end of the bid, but is more likely to be extended into criminal behavior. On “Start of Your Ending” a lifetime bid is likened to an eternity of hellfire, and on “Temperature’s Rising” Prodigy describes being “caught up in a crime that you can’t take back.” Even violent drunken revelry is often described as something that the Mobb will be engaged in “forever.”
Prodigy and Havoc relate their morality tales with an auspicious air of dogmatic authority, even as they refuse to stay grounded in one particular moral system or even a coherent cosmology (or sociological theory for that matter). Didactic narratives like “Up North Trip” and “Start of Your Ending” have explicit and simplistic morals that belie the deep spiritual crisis of the album. Although it is important to know that “fakin’ jacks” will lead to physical punishment at the hands of Mobb Deep, the duo are not in the business of illuminating the masses about the master socio-economic scheme behind street crime or God’s plan of cyclical karmic reward and punishment. They employ central tenets of Five-Percenter and Christian teachings only to reject them out of principle, often retreating into a desperate, faithless zone of uncertainty.
While Q-Tip once pondered without resolution about religion and apocalypse on the Jungle Brothers b-side “In Due Time,” he nevertheless maintained a faith in the goodness of the human spirit and God’s eternal grace. Mobb Deep sharply depart from such a stance by finding solace in the spiritual maneuverability made possible by the trife life. They locate redemption in ambivalence. On “Give Up The Goods” Noyd is positively transcendent “coming out of QB, pushing an Infiniti” but resignedly essentialist as a self-described “natural born killer.” Prodigy is more straightforward about accepting his internal conflicts, admitting that he simply “can’t cope.” He drifts happily between disturbing notions of being “born to kill” and even scarier thoughts of being socially engineered and deliberately manipulated by unseen institutional forces to rob and kill out of sheer necessity.
Prodigy’s insistence on “Give Up The Goods” that “the devil done stole my soul” encapsulates the irresolute helplessness and incomprehensible ambivalence that runs through most of the album. Prodigy in particular is especially prone to posing profound metaphorical questions about contingency and destiny that cannot be answered, not simply because of their rhetorical nature, but because he feels at home in the vast expanse of discursive space that is opened up by such inquiries. On “Q.U. Hectic” he proclaims that he speaks only “the facts” and that he eschews “fantasy” for “living in reality.” A large part of this reality includes seeking enlightenment only to be hugely disappointed, to the point of despondence even, by the lack of immediate answers.
Mobb Deep is not in denial of an objective reality, however. Certain things in life appear to be constants: namely, the encroachment of police surveillance onto all drug schemes and the inability of black youth to transcend systematic oppression. It isn’t that Prodigy and Havoc wish for their disciples to give up a good fight or stop running from the beast. Rather, they seem intent on relaying the hard truth that while the system can be resisted, it is not likely to fall any time soon, partly because your neighbors and friends will probably remain mired in complicity. Squealers may subvert a budding revolution, but truthfully, it was doomed from the beginning. As Nas famously implies on “Eye For An Eye” the system takes on the appearance of an evil spiritual entity that cannot be avoided: even an organized uprising would be about as fruitful as shooting at the sky.
For Mobb Deep, it is imperative to embrace life’s reality as it is felt and expressed in physical pain and psychological turmoil. They cry out to God and ask him to provide guidance, knowing full well that their plight is also their bliss: experience is existence. As long as one is fearful or distrustful, cynical or bitter, punching someone or being punched, he is clearly alive. You have to keep it moving, whether “it” represents actual hand-to-hand illegal drug transaction, turbulent psychodrama, or an unusually meandering flow fit within a rhythmic groove. On “Q.U. Hectic” Prodigy claims to speak on behalf of a “drug gang nation,” drops the gems he acquired from his “Queens education” and champions “moving through life at a high speed.” He cannot explain how Queensbridge became the nation’s most violent housing project but he can tell you how it feels to get out of the projects for a day and cruise in a fly ride.
If the kids of this Queens Nation are to take anything away from Infamous, it is that freedom of movement is more precious than life itself. You can be “caught up” in every kind of mess, ruled by your own vices, lost in your own sense of alienation, mixed up in foul activities, and completely unable to explain whether or not nature or nurture is to blame for all of this, but as long as you move, you live. The essence of this message is perfectly illustrated on “Eye For An Eye” when Prodigy discusses being “caught up in the dirt where ya hands get muddy.” He looks forward to a “lovely” outcome in which he can open the sunroof of a luxury whip and “let the cold air breeze through the butter soft leather upholstery.” The major problem with such outward or upward mobility – as Mobb Deep continually remind us – is that the streets are in fact a limited and controlled space where movement is bound to lead to gruesome collision.
Mobb Deep’s lessons are redeeming even if they are not always uplifting. It is true that Infamous’s moments of mobility and transcendence are usually fleeting and that they emphasize temporary highs over metaphysical elevation. It must be said however, that Mobb Deep are largely independent of their mentors and influences in an ideological sense: neither Tribe’s escapist digressions nor Nas’s self-aggrandizing agitprop are replicated on Infamous. Infamous is certainly a progressive project: Q-Tip’s lushly layered and jazzy production gives way to a cold, unforgiving blues more appropriate for a cynical but lively youthful expression that rejects orthodoxies that do not address the reality of ghetto life in an efficacious or even convincing manner.
Prodigy’s lyrics defy the normal boundaries of emotion and intellect (and even mind and body). His flow snakes in and around the music to simulate the journey of a ghetto child who must contend with limited educational and employment opportunities and the violence that these inequalities spawn. His words are brilliantly chosen: strife, agony, disillusionment, and pathos have rarely been rendered in such precise or vivid terms on a rap record. It is my opinion that Mobb Deep were able to maintain credibility farther into the ‘90s than A Tribe Called Quest because they are more poetically and ideologically sophisticated – their redundancy of their narratives is necessitated by the unanswerability of the questions they pose and the perpetuity of the conditions they describe.
The lessons of Infamous are never dumbed-down or sugar-coated even when they are stylized and exaggerated. Mobb Deep were wise enough not to devolve into mindless, complacent positivity or take the concept of “rap music as metaphor for the larger Black experience” too seriously. It remains to be seen however, if Mobb Deep can inspire a generation of disciples who possess the wherewithal and creativity to improve upon the methods and messages of Infamous.