Rock you in your face/stab your brain with your nose bone – Prodigy “Shook Ones Part II”
Hip-hop is cinema and literature.
From The Geto Boys’ operatic librettos to the Donald Goines-inspired novelistic works of Nas, rap has long sought to translate life to listeners. It’s always been a requirement to somehow straddle the line between braggadocio entertainment and vulnerable authenticity. Albert “Prodigy” Johnson now has his legacy cemented as one of the best to ever do just that.
Prodigy: a person, especially a young one, endowed with exceptional qualities or abilities.
Prodigy’s name always fit. At sixteen, he’d landed his first verse on the soundtrack to 1991’s Boyz N The Hood. Then, after joining forces with high school friend Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita, he signed to Jive while still in his teens, releasing Juvenile Hell and then, with much more fanfare, The Infamous.
Released exactly one year after Nas’s Illmatic, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous allowed Prodigy to take Illmatic a step further. With gut-wrenching lyrics, clever wordplay and gory visuals, he peeled back a layer on Nas’s literary approach to storytelling. His deep New Yawk accent and sleepy eyed chip-on-the-shoulder approach gave NYC a newly gruff exterior that fit the times.
At his very core, Prodigy was the purest of New York City MCs. Jay Z boasted about getting out of Brooklyn, Biggie would dream about going back to Cali—it’s always been de rigueur for rappers to lay down escapist dreams on wax.
With mainstream success, most trade up, even if just a bit. The videos get a bit glossier. The teeth get fixed. The pants get pulled up. Maybe a pair of Prada loafers here and there. For Prodigy it was mostly Timbs and baggy jeans for the duration.
It could be that he was running away from his past. Prodigy had a highly pedigreed musical legacy from his entire family. His was a childhood steeped in the fine arts—including dance. His grandmother regularly held shows at Carnegie Hall. Long before ancestry-research was a popular pastime, Prodigy discovered evidence that he was possibly a descendant from the founder of Morehouse College.
Or perhaps, it was this very lineage that allowed him to be true to Queensbridge. With a firm knowledge of self, he was completely comfortable being himself.
Case in point: The video for Shook Ones released in 1994. Prodigy paces, ice-grilling the camera, drink in hand. It’s convincing. And yet, he rocks a too-big jersey shouting out Hennessy—with the name brand spelled wrong. Did it matter? Not at all. The pacing and ice-grilling was still his steez during the Art of Rap Tour, where he played his last show in Las Vegas on Tuesday, June 20.
When a hip-hop legend passes on, social media mourns together, usually sharing their favorite albums or heart-warming interactions.
For Prodigy, timelines erupted with his best one-liners, dozens and dozens of the quickest, wittiest missives that hip-hop has ever seen.
Life is a gamble, we scramble for money. I might crack a smile but ain’t a damn thing funny.
Take these words home and think it through/ or the next rhyme I write might be about you.
There’s a war goin’ on outside no man is safe from. You could run but you can’t hide forever from these streets we done took. You walkin’ with your head down, scared to look.
And possibly, his most infamous line: I’m only 19/But my mind is old (borrowed by Lin-Manuel Miranda for “My Shot” from Hamilton.)
It’s common in death to polish a person’s past—only holding up the shiny glowing side. There’s no need to do that with Prodigy. He’d never want it that way. In his surprisingly honest memoir, My Infamous Life, he pulled no punches—even when they were aimed at himself. From his prison time for gun charges to his skirmishes with everyone from Jay Z to Tupac, Prodigy aimed straightforward toward his beliefs, whether they were rational or not. Whether it was his outspoken position on the so-called Illuminati or his quiet approach to his partner Havoc’s hateful twitter rant back in 2012, there was never a stand he didn’t take forcefully—even if he didn’t say a word.
His legacy? It’s hard to say. Of course he was a commanding lyricist and as one half of Mobb Deep, produced classic material that will forever hold up. But is this a hip-hop loss that will slowly seep away after the obituaries are published and the tributes are performed? Who holds the mantel for Prodigy? Just a few days before his death, Jay Z tweeted out a list of dozens of rap artists, thanking them for their contribution to the culture. Prodigy was not among them. Maybe it was due to their long-running feud or maybe not. Either way, the past has a way of affecting the present.
Let’s hope that Prodigy will be remembered for an approach to lyricism that inspired generations. Let’s hope that he is remembered for quietly dealing with his health crises while still taking time to explain and educate others struggling with having the sickle cell trait.
In the end, it seems his lyrics really did tell his entire story.
We’re living this ‘til the day that we die/Survival of the fittest/Only the strong survive.
Albert “Prodigy” Johnson died on Tuesday, June 20, 2017 at the age of 42.
(Photo: Matthew Eisman/Getty Images)