Mobb Deep: Not Dead Yet

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Totally forgot the American Music Awards were on last night

The beat is eerily familiar. The gurgling bass and the itchily insistent bongos come from Edwin Starr's "Easin' In," and Starr's own disembodied voice floats over the end of the track, howling forgotten nothings. DMX already used that beat for "Crime Story," from It's Dark and Hell is Hot (thanks, XXL fruitflies!), and this track taps into the same deep-seated dread as the DMX one. The track is dark and skeletal, the spaces between the notes filling up worlds by themselves. And Prodigy uses that empty glide to hit the fearful rage that made him one of the greatest rappers in the world when he was nineteen years old. He's talking out of the side of his mouth, mumbling threats and confessions and half-remembered tangents, talking about being high on crack in interrogation rooms, sounding like someone who's already gone over the edge: "I'm paranoid, and it's not the weed / In my rearview mirror, these cars, they follow me," "I ain't even wiping my sweat, it's keeping me cool / I ain't even sweating you ninjas, I'ma find you." On the chorus, he mutters an interpolation of an old Scarface lyric, a holy text: "I sit alone in my dirty-ass room staring at candles / High on drugs." On "Nightmares," the depressive/paranoid closing track from Clipse's new Hell Hath No Fury, Pusha T quotes the same Geto Boys song, "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me," grabbing bits and pieces of Willie D's verse to hit the same notes of bad faith and fatalism. Beanie Sigel did something similar with Scarface's opening lines on "Feel It In the Air." And now Prodigy, someone who seemed to have forgotten the sneering nihilism that made his voice so powerful, uses those lines to access one of the darkest visions we've heard from any rapper in a good long while. It's heavy shit, and it gets even heavier once you see the video.

As the "Mac 10 Handle" video opens, Prodigy is coated in sweat, slumped on a floor, chugging tequila from a bottle. A second later, he's seen silhouetted in a flophouse window, waving a machete. When he mutters something about watching Hard Boiled, images from John Woo's best movie flicker on the screen. The film stock is harsh and grainy, bathed in a hazy glow, speeding up and slowing down and chopping around frantically while Prodigy's eyes dart around his nasty apartment, around the makeshift ashtrays in old pizza boxes. We're a long way from the mansions of the "Have a Party" video. Later, we see Prodigy in a nightclub surrounded by people in Halloween costumes. A girl in a vampire costume flashes her fangs. Some guy in a Michael Myers mask stands motionless against a wall. Prodigy's not wearing a costume, and he's staring backwards over his shoulder. And then he's back in that apartment, hallucinating dudes in rubber demon masks suddenly appearing next to him. Snakes crawl around. Prodigy stabs a mirror, then a chair. And when he stabs the chair, blood comes out, so he keeps stabbing. An evil laugh bubbles up from the track. The whole thing is just fantastically dark and evil, a bloody fever dream from someone buried so deep in his own thoughts that he's stopped looking for a way out.

I didn't think we'd ever see this Prodigy again. Mobb Deep seemed to run out of gas long before they signed with G-Unit, and the complete commercial and artistic disaster of Blood Money seemed like the inevitable end of their sad decline. Seeing these two guys, once young and fierce outlaws, shout out their bosses every time they got a chance and willfully becoming dessicated yes-men was a sad, sad experience. Prodigy only seemed to remember who he was once on the entire album, sneering at God on "Pearly Gates." But When the album finally came out, his verse had been totally censored. Left by themselves with no G-Unit support on the Summer Jam stage a few months back, they looked lost and outmatched, like the world had moved on past them. So "Mac 10 Handle," both the song and the video, comes as a euphoric suprise. These aren't good times for existential New York goth-rap, and the song should probably sound dated as all hell, especially considering that the beat it jacks is more than eight years old. But instead the track is iconic, an irregular heartbeat that feels like it's always been there in our memories, twisting just under the surface. Other than a quick shot of Prodigy's ill-advised G-Unit tattoo, no mention is made of his new employers or even of Havoc. Apparently this track comes from a new solo mixtape, Return of the Mac. The video will never get played on MTV and BET; it's there for YouTube and YouTube alone. Somehow, though, that doesn't feel like a handicap. Prodigy has utterly failed at the rap star-system. But if he digs deep into himself and remembers everything that once made him great, there's a place for him on the edges of the room, glaring out at everyone else behind lidded eyes. It's the role he was born to play.

Voice review: Greg Tate on Mobb Deep's Blood Money



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