Mobb Deep’s seminal The Infamous is 25 tomorrow, an age that too few of their morbid muses saw. In their Queensbridge brethren Nas’ Time Is Illmatic documentary, there’s a harrowing scene where he’s looking at a group picture of his Queensbridge neighbors and pointed out how many people were currently incarcerated or had succumbed to the streets. The Infamous explains how such pictures become memorials.
The grim project was an outlier in the subgenre deemed “gangsta rap.” The term “real” has become pretty hollow, but Mobb Deep’s landmark sophomore album is as grim and bare as it gets. The 16-track release didn’t display the late Prodigy or Havoc celebrating the material trappings of illicit funds, or weaving hyperbolic stories about being the next Scarface, or dishing clever wordplay that sugarcoats their violence.
On the Ghostface Killah and Raekwon-featured ”Right Back At You,” Prodigy raps, “As long as I send your maggot ass to the essence / I don’t give a f*ck about my presence” with a chilling steeliness. Why does he devalue life? Because “I’m lost in the blocks of hate,” he rhymed in the next bar.
As Prodigy, who died in 2017 from accidental choking, explained in his My Infamous Life autobiography, they were still hanging out in Queensbridge even as signed artists. And Mobb Deep wasn’t just a name. The duo ran with a hoard of friends, many of whom were selling drugs, committing robberies, and doing anything else they felt like they had to do to get by. Prodigy and Havoc were telling their version of the 41st and Vernon Blvd story just as they did on Juvenile Hell, their debut album released on 4th & B’way Records.
But while Juvenile Hell reflected a couple of teenagers who were still finding their way as artists, businessmen, and young men, The Infamous reflects two people who were fully tapped into their craft. Prodigy has reflected that the cultural jolt that was Illmatic influenced them to step their rap game up. And Havoc was a burgeoning producer who has said he got help “formulating his production” from Q-Tip, the album’s mixing engineer who initially helped them get their footing in the industry.
Tip is highly regarded for his A Tribe Called Quest work, which was the sonic DNA behind artists like Kanye West and Pharrell, but he also deserves credit for helping the Mobb craft The Infamous’ dark soundscape. Songs like “Survival Of The Fittest” and “Eye For Eye” are sonically divergent from his bright, jazzy Tribe offerings.
Album executive producers Matt Life and Schott Free also played a big role, by cutting their 20-track demo into what we hear today. Life told Complex that “Schott worked closely with them on how the rhymes were coming and I worked closely with them on how production was coming.” With the help of a brilliant team, Prodigy and Havoc crafted an album so dark that their genius is the only thing that shone through.
The album is unflinching in its grim depiction of violence and death. Their menace was a reaction to an environment that either ignored them or criminalized them. Lower Manhattan is regarded as the brain trust of America’s economy, but abject poverty ruled just a river over. Early ‘90’s New York was still reeling from the effects of the ‘80’s crack era. Families were broken. Violent crime was sky-high. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani let the NYPD be unabashedly predatorial and racist, harassing young people of color in the name of “lowering crime.” These factors created “a war goin’ on outside no man is safe from,” as Prodigy rhymed on “Survival Of The Fittest.” Consider some of his other bars from the song:
If I’m not at home, puffin’ lye, relaxin’
New York got a n**** depressed
So I wear a slug-proof underneath my Guess
The correlation between their depression and homicidal ideations is the bedrock of the project. They tried to smoke to self-medicate. They tried to “Drink Away The Pain,” but the pain still persisted. Even when Prodigy rhymed about going to meet a woman on “Trife Life,” his paranoia won out and they ended up running from a mysterious black van. Havoc and Prodigy’s storytelling captured the peril of their era with a jarring bluntness. Both men are talented lyricists, but they never let technical theatrics get in the way of conveying bare bars. There are esteemed studies about poverty’s effects on Black youth that will never hit as hard as Havoc rhyming, “thirteen years in the projects — my mentality is what, kid?” on “Shook Ones Pt. II.”
Prodigy, in particular, showed out throughout the album which many regard as his finest lyrical showing. Of course, there’s the iconic “Shook Ones Pt. II” verse, but he was locked in throughout the project. His mix of Queensbridge slang (deemed “the dunn language”), reflective insights, and graphic threats marked him as a one-of-a-kind voice in the rap game. He complicated profound ideas, as evidenced by this smack of reality on “Give Up The Goods:”
I’m tryna tell these young n****s crime don’t pay
They looked at me and said, “Queens n****s don’t play
Do your thing, I’ll do mine kid stay outta my way”
Though they aspired for “the life that of diamonds and guns,” the album doesn’t have any of the commercial pizazz of their peers’ projects, which may explain the modest gold album status 25 years later. But commercial accolades could never explain The Infamous’ impact. They told a story that needed to be told over a suite of production that could very well be the best ever on a single project. Havoc has expressed interest in participating in a Verzuz song battle, and Swizz Beatz has implied that he’ll be facing The Alchemist, a Mobb Deep affiliate whose production style reflects that he was impacted by The Infamous. It’s unknown when or if that battle will take place. In the meantime, one can run up The Infamous to celebrate the legacy of Havoc and Mobb Deep.