We revisit Mobb Deep's classic as it turns 20.
Mobb Deep’s second studio album, The Infamous, turns 20 years old today. Through quality bars, samples, beats, and skits, Havoc and Prodigy were able to impact the trajectory hip-hop by delivering a record that is in the GOAT discussion for many.
The Infamous is right up there with the likes of 36 Chambers, Illmatic, and Ready To Die in terms of its influence on the 90s New York City rap renaissance. While Mobb Deep doesn’t have quite the same aura as the Wu, Nas or Biggie, the album is, in many ways, on the same tier. It has also impacted pretty much every MC to pick up a mic since then, whether directly or indirectly.
When Kendrick Lamar sat down with GQ Magazine at the end of 2013, he named his favorite rappers. West Coast titans Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and 2Pac were three rather obvious picks before the Compton MC delivered a curveball: Prodigy.
“We had this garage in Dave Free's mother's house, we just had ProTools, a mic, and a quilt hanging over the mic. It would be late night when we would go to his mom's house. Probably wouldn't come out the garage until like 4 am, then wake up and go to school the next morning. We started recording this mix tape, called Youngest Head Nigga In Charge, YHNIC, and I was a big Prodigy fan at the time. So I was really biting his style,” Lamar told GQ.
The album has all the ingredients of classic hip-hop. For starters, Havoc and Prodigy donated their greatest bars to the project, and really honed in on the good, bad, and ugly parts of New York City street life. Just as The Godfather places you inside the mafia, The Infamous places you in a dark spot in the Queens Bridge projects.
These days, You’ll be hard-pressed to find bars as well-written as “Give Up The Goods (Just Step).” Each MC absolutely ripped the boom-bap beat to pieces. Prodigy’s song-ending 14 bars has to be one of the great raps of its kind:
“I got lots of love, for my crew that is
No love for them other crews and rival kids
All them out-of-town niggas know what time it is
And if they don't, they need to buy a watch, word up
Caught up in the cross-fire get theyself hurt up
While I be sipping gin straight in a plastic cup
On a park bench on 12th Street, my whole crew's famous
You tried to bust your gat and keep it real but you nameless
First of all slow down, you on the wrong route
Let me put you on your feet and show you what's it all about
The street life ain't nothing to play with
No jokes no games kid for years I been doing the same shit
Just drinking liquor, doing bids, extorting crack heads
And sticking up the stick-up kids”
And there’s no shortage of this type of genius. The songs work to glorify gang life to an extent, but it’s really just laying the facts on the table. Like The Godfather, these stories make you side with the villains due to their likability and courageous qualities.
On “Temperature’s Rising,” Havoc comes with an empathetic verse for his homie who’s on the run from the police:
“Word up, son, I heard they got you on the run
For a body - now it's time to stash the guns
They probably got the phones tapped so I won't speak long
Gimme a hot second, and I'mma put you on
It's all messed up somebody snitchin on the crew
And word is on the street is they got pictures of you
Homicide came to the crib last night, six deep
Askin' on your whereabouts and where d'you sleep
They said they just wanna question you, but me and you know
That once they catch you, all they do is just arrest you
Then arraign you, hang you, I don't think so
It's a good thing you bounced for now just stay low
Once in a blue I check to see how you're doin
I know you need loot, so I send it through Western Union”
It’s the brotherly bond that is so present in the street life that makes these lyrics so appealing. You don’t have to have homicide ringing your doorbell to appreciate a well-told narrative, which is exactly what Mobb Deep was doing.
Features from Nas, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Big Noyd, and Q-Tip equate to one of the strongest run of guest appearances on any album ever. “Right Back At You” featured five of the deadliest MCs in the game at this time: Rae, Ghost, Prodigy, Havoc, and Big Noyd. With slapping drums and an eerie beat, the quintet displayed why this exact hip-hop scene is so infamous (for lack of a better word) to this day. Raekwon and Ghost sharing their chemistry was really the icing on the cake.
Q-Tip showed up for a feature on “Drink Away The Pain,” and since A Tribe Called Quest is so different than Mobb Deep, it’s incredible to dwell on the fact that these dudes were all running in the same circles back then. Listening back to The Infamous, you can really feel the collective energy of NYC as a whole, not just within the Wu-Tang Clan, Native Tongues, and Queens crews.
Production was handled almost entirely by Mobb Deep, which is an often-overlooked weapon in the duo’s arsenal. When you mention producer/MCs, the Mobb isn’t one of the first names that come to mind, although they really crush that aspect of the game. Samples from Al Green, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and more give the nostalgic feel that '90s hip-hop frequently relies on. Of course, we’ve heard the beats re-purposed time and time again.
How many “Shook Ones Pt. II” freestyles have you heard? It’s practically a right of passage for an MC to deliver a powerful freestyle over the legendary beat. How about what Eminem did on it during his "8 Mile" flick? That was not only a spectacular showcase of Eminem’s talent and creative energy, but also a testament to Mobb Deep’s impact on the scene.
Havoc and Prodigy did what very few other hip-hop duos have ever done when they delivered The Infamous. Every beat is on point, each bar carefully placed; even the skits are great. By channeling that golden era of hip-hop, Mobb Deep was able to deliver a timeless classic.