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Remembering Prodigy of Mobb Deep, the Coldest Rapper of His Generation

With his passing on Tuesday at the age of 42, reflections on one of the most unforgettable voices of a classic era in New York hip-hop

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

No rapper has ever been more honest about the agony and aspirations of a stick-up kid than Prodigy, who died Tuesday at age 42.

Early news reports indicate that the rapper, born Albert Johnson, had been hospitalized due to complications from sickle cell disease, which the rapper famously struggled with since birth. The exact cause of death is unknown at this time.

Prodigy — born in Hempstead, Long Island — stood as half of the Queensbridge rap duo Mobb Deep, one of the most celebrated New York rap groups in the genre’s history. He and his longtime recording partner, Havoc, formed Mobb Deep together as teenagers in 1992. Initially, Havoc coached Prodigy as a songwriter for the duo’s debut album, Juvenile Hell, released by 4th & B’way Records in April 1993. Two years later, Prodigy’s smoky voice came to dominate the group on their breakout album, The Infamous, released by Loud Records. The album was like nothing hip-hop had ever heard before: Havoc flipped obscure samples into ghastly melodies, and Prodigy would rap over those beats in a tenor similar to the hip-hop pioneer Rakim, but with horrific, unsparing detail in his verses. Prodigy’s demeanor was a cold force set to Havoc’s exceedingly grim production.

Prodigy rapped about life in the projects, and his outlook was bleak. He also rapped about power, fame, and escape, though his outlook on all of that was bleak, too. Mobb Deep’s classic single, “Shook Ones, Pt. II,” gave us the signature bit of the rapper’s figurative violence: “For all of those who wanna profile and pose / Rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone.”

It was Prodigy’s ability to cast himself as a slick, invincible straight shooter in the darkness that gave the rapper’s verses their slim but invaluable sense of empowerment. “I break bread, ribs, hundred dollar bills,” he rapped at the top of his 2000 solo record, “Keep It Thoro.” Later: “Remorseless, I haunt niggas like poltergeists / My advice before you get like that is think twice.”

Prodigy was as confrontational at large as he was in his music, spending much of his career embattled with New York rap rivals Nas and Jay-Z. And as those rivals’ stock rose with the rise of commercial hip-hop in the 2000s, Mobb Deep backslid from its platinum sales peak. The group briefly signed to G-Unit in the 2000s and then all but disintegrated, with Prodigy turning to longtime collaborator Alchemist to relaunch his solo career with the 2007 album Return of the Mac, quickly followed by the release of cult favorite albums H.N.I.C. Pt. 2 and Product of the 80s. (Prodigy released his first solo album, H.N.I.C., in 2000, between Mobb Deep’s fourth and fifth group albums.)

Several months before the release of Return of the Mac, Prodigy caught a gun possession charge which ultimately led to a three-year prison bid. While Prodigy fell from mainstream regard during his hard-core resurgence and, then, his time in prison, his influence surfaced in junior collaborators such as Roc Marciano and the late Stack Bundles.

Hip-hop cherished Prodigy not in spite of his candor, but because of it. Outside of his rap career, Prodigy was a prolific author, publishing a memoir, a crime novel, and — as recently as last October — a cookbook, Commissary Kitchen, with coauthor Kathy Iandoli. The rapper also blogged. In all caps. Before his prison sentence cut his access to the internet short, Prodigy proved better suited to digital life than his age might’ve suggested.

The internet first learned of Prodigy’s death from fellow Queens rapper Nas and his younger brother, Jungle, both of whom shared early condolences via Instagram captions. In his final years, Prodigy toured extensively with Havoc, and attempted to publicly reconcile with Jay, Nas, and the countless rappers that he insulted on his all-caps blog at some point.

He could be foul. But it’s impossible to hold a grudge against Prodigy once you consider all that he brought to the table.