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R.I.P. Prodigy: 13 Sure Shots From The Queensbridge MC

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The rapper Prodigy passed away on June 20 in Las Vegas, where he’d been hospitalized for complications due to the sickle cell anemia he’d been managing throughout his life. Prodigy rose to acclaim in the mid-Nineties as one half of Mobb Deep, the duo that — along with Nas — helped extend the claim of the Queensbridge housing projects on hip-hop history. Classic Mobb Deep anthems like “Shook Ones (Pt. II)” and “Survival of the Fittest” fostered a brand of eerie and paranoid New York City rap that embraced the trappings of the trife life, but Prodigy’s own writing style and the topics he chose to rap about continually developed and expanded over a career that kicked off way back in 1991.

In a salute to hip-hop’s latest fallen soldier, here are thirteen Prodigy sure shots, in chronological order, which pay respect to the full range of his music.

Poetical Prophets, “Flavor for the Non-Believers”

Before embracing the name Mobb Deep, Prodigy and Havoc made their first industry moves as the Poetical Prophets. 1991’s demo tape found its way to the Source magazine’s Unsigned Hype column off the strength of “Flavor for the Non-Believers,” a track based around a frisky loop courtesy of “an unnamed associate from Coney Island.” Setting themselves apart from kiddie rappers of the day like ABC and Kris Kross, Hav and P might rock adolescent vocal tones, but the boasts are all about passing Philly blunts and slangin’ rocks on the corner.

Mobb Deep, “Hit It From the Back”

Having snagged a deal with 4th & Broadway, Havoc and Prodigy readied their debut album, 1993’s Juvenile Hell, which they sequenced into “Real” and “Chill” sides. The set failed to make commercial waves, but it still contained production input from DJ Premier and Large Professor (who both turned their hands to versions of the moody “Peer Pressure”). The self-produced “Hit It From the Back” casts the randy P as a “nasty little mister” who’s “quick to talk dirty to a sister.” Much booty footage abounds in the single’s video.

Mobb Deep, “Shook Ones (Pt. II)”

You’ll struggle to find a rap song as evocative of sinister housing project stairwells and bleak urban paranoia as the track that became Mobb Deep’s breakthrough moment in 1995. Now embracing a more menacingly nonchalant style of spitting, Prodigy jolts the song into life with the vow, “I got you stuck off the realness.” What follows is a verse that’s packed with brilliantly inventive threats of ultra-violence — “Rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone” — and the chilling confession, “I’m only nineteen but my mind is old/When the things get for real my warm heart turns cold.” The song not only established Mobb Deep’s image and vibe but endures as a potent snapshot of the era.

LL Cool J feat. Keith Murray, Fat Joe, Foxy Brown, and Prodigy, “I Shot Ya (Remix)”

Over one of the toughest beats the Trackmasters have ever pumped out, the 1995 remix of LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya” turned into an all-star New York City posse cut. After Keith Murray sparks the session with his patented brand of “intellectual violence,” Prodigy takes up the mic and coins one of the all-time great conspiracy theory hip-hop lines: “Illuminati want my mind, soul, and my body/Secret society trying to keep they eye on me.” If you’re going to delve into paranoid rap lyrics, no one does it as effectively as Bandana P.

Mobb Deep, “Drop a Gem on ’Em”

“Drop a Gem on ’Em” was released in 1996, after Mobb Deep got caught up in the seeds of the East Coast vs. West Coast rap war that would eventually claim the lives of the Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac. Coated in a saturnine layer of static, Prodigy pulls no punches as he takes aim at Pac by calling him a “faggot” and suggests he was raped during his spell on Rikers Island. At one point P threatens to leave his foe needing “two Gs worth of stitches” to “reconstruct your face and learn how to speak again.” Don’t mess with the Mobb.

Mobb Deep, “Quiet Storm (Remix)”

By the time Mobb Deep’s Murda Muzik dropped in 1999, hip-hop had gone jiggy with it, as Puff Daddy maximalized the music’s march into the mainstream with pop-friendly fare. The move never sat well with Hav and P, and their response was to continue recording brooding odes to the trife life. With gloomy rain and storm sound effects skillfully woven into the production, a flip of “Quiet Storm,” which saw the duo reaching out to Lil’ Kim, hit home as masterful mood music while also prompting the Junior Mafia queen to trade up designer clothing references for Queensbridge slang as she passes the mic off: “Yo, Prodigy, tell ’em what this is, dunn!”

Mobb Deep, “The Learning (Burn)”

The early 2000s were not kind to Prodigy, after Jay Z called him out as a ballerina on his infamous track “Takeover” and broadcast a photo of the rapper dressed up in dance attire at a Summer Jam gig — but 2001’s Infamy still contains enough gutter-rugged verses to satiate any Mobb Deep diehard. In particular, “The Learning (Burn)” reunites Havoc and Prodigy with their old Queensbridge spar Big Noyd, while for his part Bandana P weaves in a sly shot at Jigga: “That shit that you pulled ain’t do me no damage/You don’t know me, nigga, but we ’bout to change that shit…”

Prodigy, “You Can Never Feel My Pain”

Prodigy’s debut solo album, H.N.I.C., allowed him to air out a more personal stash of rhymes. The project’s lead single, “Keep It Thoro,” became an instant rowdy club anthem, but it’s the closing run of cuts that showcase his ability to open up to listeners. The autobiographical “You Can Never Feel My Pain” has Prodigy confessing to being sedated with morphine as a kid as he mentions being afflicted with “permanent, physical suffering.” Copping to also experiencing bouts of depression, the rapper links his medical issues to the dour and cynical world view that became his philosophical calling card.

Big Noyd feat. Prodigy, “The Grimy Way”

The Lyricist Lounge movement might be stereotyped as being powered by nerdy backpack rappers spitting from scientific dictionaries, but the truth is the Nineties open-mike scene in New York City was way more inclusive than that. Mobb Deep actually performed at an early Lyricist Lounge night when they were both just sixteen years old, so it was only fitting that Prodigy popped up on the second installment of the franchise’s Rawkus compilation albums in 2000. With Alchemist cooking up a weighty, brass-spiked beat, P drops textbook Mobb speak on the hook as he outlines, “The only way to live is the grimy way/The only way to get ahead is the gun way.”

Mobb Deep feat. 50 Cent, “Pearly Gates”

Mobb Deep’s dalliance with 50 Cent’s G-Unit Records was never going to end amicably. Where Fif’ has always courted the mainstream, Capital P and H’s music works best in the shadowy margins. The 2006 Blood Money project is an uneven listen, but the deep cut “Pearly Gates” is a keeper as the rappers team up with their label boss to muse on the role of religion over a nostalgia-tinted, Seventies soul-sampling beat courtesy of Exile. Taking control of the song’s final verse, Prodigy brazenly declares that he wants to tell “the boss man” upstairs that he’s got beef with him “for leaving us out to dry on straight poverty/For not showing me no signs they watching over me.” Then comes the kicker: “In the Bible times they ain’t had to deal with the shit we dealing with/These survival times.”

Prodigy, Big Twins, Un Pacino, “Catch Body Music”

As the 2000s unfurled, Prodigy dropped a series of underrated and diverse solo albums, including a team-up with Illa Ghee (Closed Session) and the second in his H.N.I.C. franchise. But 2008’s Product of the 80’s is the outing most deserving of retrospective shine, as P calls on his longtime Queens foot soldiers, the gravel-voiced Big Twins and Un Pacino, to pen a homage to the era of crack cocaine and Reaganomics. The production, mostly handled by the Sid Roams duo, is hooked around spine-chilling Eighties synths, while tracks like “Catch Body Music” let Prodigy coin characteristically idiosyncratic lines like, “I’m so hungry, that I could eat a horse/I’m so thirsty, I could drink the horse’s blood.”

Prodigy & Alchemist, “Curb Ya Dog”

When it was released in 2013, Prodigy and the producer Alchemist’s Albert Einstein resonated like a classic example of sticking to your lane. In P’s case, that means rapping over the sort of taut and rugged beats that could happily soundtrack an illegal street fight and dropping lyrics that swing between brutal brags, vignettes of street life, and conspiracy theories. (The album cut “Give ’Em Hell” also includes genius talk about “psychic vampires.”) “Who rep NYC like QB?/We vets, we not pets,” spits Prodigy on “Curb Ya Dog” in the sort of hardcore outing that you half expect to hear deceased rap rabble-rouser Tim Dog pop up on. Naturally, the track also includes canine barking sound effects.

Prodigy, “No Religion”

Gifted to the world earlier this year, Hegelian Dialectic (The Book of Revelation) is likely the only hip-hop album directly inspired by the teachings of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Embracing his role as a senior figure in the hip-hop scene, Prodigy gets openly political on songs like “Mafuckin U$A” (where he addresses Proposition 37, a California attempt to label all genetically modified food) and muses on his image and expectations as a rapper on the plaintive “No Religion”: “When I do good you hate it/But when I’m evil and reckless you love it/Fanatics — y’all a bunch of sick motherfuckers.” Real talk from one of hip-hop’s most outspoken voices.

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