There is maybe no one who has ever done quintessential NYC boom-bap rap better, from both a rap and production point of view. The only problem is that that is the only area prodigy occupies. Make no mistake: just as there was no room for 50 cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ approach after Kanye’s Graduation album, there is almost no place for Prodigy post Kendrick Lamar and his good kid, m.A.Ad city album. This accordance of NYC supremacy even shockingly includes the work of The Wu-Tang Clan. As great as RZA’s management of Raekwon, Method Man, GZA’s, and Ghostface’s contributions was, I can’t help but shake the feeling that the sound of kung-fu samples movies is, in the end, alien to an American urban, overbuilt metropolis.
In any event, the very dynamic of Mobb Deep as a group – just two guys, including a rapper producer, who collaborate on every album – is truer to the dynamic of rap than a group of 9 amazing rappers and businessmen, which is completely unique in the rap world.
In a way, Prodigy might be a victim of his own success. He was so good at gangsta rap for so long he might never have felt a need to diversify beyond the urban material that predominates his poetry. He certainly wasn’t able to make the same rapping leap as Jean Grae from her Attack Of The Attacking Things to her Cookies Or Comas mixtape, or even the production leap of Dr. Dre between N.W.A, G-funk, and Chronic: 2001, or Kanye West from…any album to the next.
Although I was talking mostly about his production there, for the best gangsta rap, the production informs the content of the rap, and not the other way around. This makes it unlike other sub-genres of rap that have material that could be interchanged. For instance, as much as I like the beats on the G.O.O.D. music mixtape, the “Clique” raps could have been spit over any Hit-Boy beat.
However, it’s hard to imagine Prodigy’s first verse on shook ones pt. 2 having the same effect, even over other boom-bap beats, and that’s what makes it awesome. “Shook Ones, Pt. 2” is completely the real deal as well. Some songs in rap that are passed around as classics really aren’t good songs in the first place, or they’ve lost their punch over the years as their details were incorporated into other musician’s songs. However, “Shook Ones” is right up there with “The Message” and “Jesus Walks”, and maybe in contradiction to “Rapper’s Delight.”
“Shook Ones” is actually a great summation of Prodigy’s style. What he’s gonna kill you with is punch lines. But not punch lines that are jokes and will have you laughing, like Ludacris might; instead, they’ll make you run and cry: “Take these words home and think em through / or the next rhyme I write might be about you.” Prodigy’s gangsta rap writing is especially notable for lacking the explicitness of other rappers, like Eminem. Eminem would shock you and describe every detail of his tortures. Instead, Prodigy relies on suggestion and subtlety, as he leaves his devilish plans for you unsaid.
Although prodigy is a better technical rapper than Snoop Dogg, he doesn’t have the most original style of all time. He’s just the best example of something of which many have done, and which many still do very, very well. He doesn’t suffer from a lack of versatility in his technical approach, as Snoop does. He knows how to vary the type of his rhymes, and his rhythms at their best grab you and pull you in. Just notice how on “Shook Ones” he’s always floating right around the downbeats of the music, but never quite on them. Prodigy’s somewhat monotone flow suggests the sparseness of the urban life, especially when combined with the barebones production, not just in terms of the sounds they use – at most 2 samples, a snare, a bass kick, and hi-hats – but their mixing, which very often have holes in their frequency range. Furthermore, the mixing is amateur – the reverb is completely unbalanced off to the right on “Shook Ones”. But it’s this kind of brutal aesthetic that gives The Infamous the replayability that other gangsta raps have. 50 cent’s debut album had crazy beats. But the life 50 describes might have been lived by any other gangsta rapper, and 50 tells you everything – he doesn’t leave any part of the story for you to unfold yourself. Prodigy skillfully sidesteps this pitfall in his own work.