Remembering the late, great hip-hop artist Prodigy, one-half of Mobb Deep, through four essential tracks…
by: Maggie Sachson
“Have you ever lost a loved one? Or never understood love till you lost one? Where your heart at? I left mines behind with my dearly departed, where your heart at?” – Prodigy
The news of Albert “Prodigy” Johnson’s untimely death hit me like a ton of bricks. Prodigy was a lyrical kingpin and a hip-hop legend, and he’d clearly left lasting impressions and influences on the hip-hop community and listeners across the decades. Social media outlets were flooded with tributes from fans, journalists, producers, and other rappers. Nas, coming off as despondent on his social media feeds, wrote, “QB RIP King P. Prodigy Forever.” Ja Rule, with whom Prodigy had beef at one point, displayed a deep respect for Prodigy (“As you may all know, me and P have had our differences over the years…but what y’all don’t know is that we also had our moments of reconcile and talk like men and work out our problems…glad we had that time life is too short. RIP king…”). Pusha T said he is still rocking bandanas because of Prodigy and Havoc, Prodigy’s lifelong friend and partner in Mobb Deep, simply posted a picture of them when they were just little “thuns.” ((A thun is a version of the slang term “son,” a term coined by Mobb Deep.)) Fans all over the world shared their favorite verses, tracks, photos, memorabilia, and memories. Through his verses, Prodigy gave us colorful narratives from the street, complete with his signature anger and pain, and mixed with an unapologetic bravado. He had us all stuck off the realness.
Although his music was already heavy in my rotation, I, as I am sure so many hip-hop heads did, spent the whole day and evening following the news of Prodigy’s untimely death, indulging in his music across the years and remembering his genius. A month after his passing, these are the songs that stuck with me the most, and clearly display the tremendous talents of one of hip-hop’s greatest lyricists and rappers.
1. “Self Conscience” featuring Nas
The Queensbridge compilation album, Queensbridge the Album, is home to “Self Conscience” featuring Nas, a track which showcases Prodigy’s creative approach to his art. Over an eerie yet angelic production by Infinite Arkatechz, we hear Prodigy having a conversation with his conscience, one where he is expressing his doubts as a lyricist. His conscience scoffs at the doubt, reminding Prodigy that people want to hear his story and his verses, so much so that they have his albums on repeat. “Take my word ni**as wanna hear how you think / It be that shit that you wouldn’t expect to win / That stay playin in they decks over and again / Speak your thoughts, put your all in it / Whatever’s in your mind, spit it.” In the genre of hip-hop, as well as in the streets where Prodigy grew up, where bragging and cockiness tends to reign, it takes a certain amount of boldness to express any lack of confidence, as this could indicate weakness. But in some way, Prodigy is confident enough to expose this unsure side of him, reminding us that we are all just human. In using this push and pull between himself and his conscience, we can see another side to this masterful MC, one more vulnerable and relatable. Prodigy is someone who struggles with doubts and fears just as we do, someone who sometimes just needs to talk it out.
2. “The Game” – Pete Rock featuring Prodigy, Ghostface Killah, and Raekwon
It was always a thrill when Prodigy teamed up with a crew of other talented MCs, as he always stood his ground and proved he deserved to be in the box with some of hip-hop’s most prolific rappers. “The Game” is a relatively obscure track, where Prodigy brings his genius alongside Ghostface Killah and Raekwon over a Pete Rock-produced beat off of his Soul Survivor album from 1998. Although small in stature (Prodigy stood a meager 5’6” tall), what he lacked in height he made up for in verbal assassination, and this track is proof positive of this. Prodigy always spoke honestly and from the heart, always keeping it real and staying true to himself. Sandwiched in between two Wu-Tang Clan veterans, in “The Game” he provides proof of his lyrical dexterity and his place amongst hip-hop’s best. “Segregate those fake punks / Separate the bullshit from the authentic / Vintage rhyme division got the globe listening / My rap scroll belittled your goals and visions,” he spits ferociously. Five years after Mobb Deep’s critically acclaimed classic The Infamous, we see that Prodigy continued to keep it real, as well as progress in his lyrical skill set. He was a lifer in this game, and you could feel it through every word he spit.
3. “Apostle’s Warning”
“Apostle’s Warning,” the closing track on Mobb Deep’s 1996 album, Hell On Earth, always blew my mind. Although I never liked to play favorites with my fave hip-hop duo, as both Prodigy and Havoc have my heart, I just can’t see anyone listening to Prodigy’s verse on “Apostle’s Warning” and not say he is number one. After a sick intro from Havoc layered over his eerie, dense production, Prodigy relentlessly shines amongst the remaining three minutes of the song, showcasing his lyrical prowess, channeling his aggression, and basically ending Hell on Earth on a positive note, leaving the listener thirsty for the Mobb’s next album. Prodigy’s rhyme schemes are deliberate and jaw-dropping, and flow so effortlessly. Rhyming “My empire strikes with the strength of poisonous snakes / My entire unit loaded up with snake niggas that hire stakes / We pull off a high stakes, great escapes, expand, shift team downstate / Dreams are growing over and my son’ll live great / Little man I’m plannin’ to enhance your mindstate.” And that is just the commencement of his legendary verse on “Apostle’s Warning,” a track that finds Prodigy at his very finest.
4. “Shook Ones, Pt II”
We can’t possibly pay homage to Prodigy without mentioning “Shook Ones, Pt II.” It may be an obvious choice amongst this list, as it is revered by many as Mobb Deep’s most extraordinary track, but considering it contains some of hip-hop’s most quotable lines and acts as a bedrock to ‘90s hip-hop, it’s impossible to look past it in this case. Frankly, the song is as important to hip-hop as it was to pop culture. The late Big L reminded us that we all know the true meaning of “Shook Ones” thanks to Mobb Deep on his famed song “Ebonics.” Fat Joe samples a line in his hard-hitting song “The Crack Attack.” Eminem uses the song in the early moments of the film 8 Mile. The man behind the enormously-popular Broadway show Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda, invoked “Shook Ones, Pt II” in the musical. Even Mariah Carey sampled the track on her song “The Roof,” where Prodigy’s voice can be heard in the background.
Over another brilliant Havoc production ((Notably, Havoc was originally going to dismiss the beat he made at its inception, until Prodigy convinced him otherwise.)) the duo transports us to the depths of Queensbridge as they call out the fake gangsters and “halfway crooks.” In “Shook Ones, Pt II” Havoc and Prodigy walk us through the projects they call home and offer a glimpse into the state of mind of being young in the hood. Aggressively, Prodigy spits lines like “Rock You In your face stab your brain with your nose bone“ and “speak the wrong words man and you will get touched / You can put your whole army against my team and / I guarantee you it will be last time breathing,” offering powerful and brazen messages while never failing to keep the listeners on their toes.
You would think Prodigy was a seven-foot giant wreaking chaos throughout Queens based on the braggadocio content of his lyrics, but he wasn’t. He was just a kid – but he had us all shook regardless. And that was the point. He knew exactly what he was doing when writing “Shook Ones, Pt II,” bringing the nightmares and verities of the streets to the masses, as there was no reason to keep it hidden. Prodigy put his entire being into his bars from day one, and because of that his contributions to hip-hop will never be forgotten.
Prodigy wasn’t just Queens; he was New York. He was hip-hop, and he will be missed. Thank you, P.