#95: Mobb Deep, Hell on Earth (1996)
Hell on Earth
is not among my favorite rap albums, but it seems somehow essential in its singular vision of minimalist intensity. Reviewing Heltah Skeltah’s Nocturnal
(1996), I remarked on the duo’s curious decision to bind the often violent intensity of their lyrics to sonic backdrops often bordering on the ephemeral; with Mobb Deep’s second album, that decision feels less like a curiosity and more like some sort of destiny being fulfilled. On display here are beats that seem barely there
at all (my favorite: “Shook Ones Pt. I,” an early track included on the international release) sustaining lyrics as disquietingly focused as Chinese water torture. The vestiges of boom bap and gangsta rap are stripped down until only their vital organs are visible--so much so that the simple organ riff of “Still Shinin’” sounds like a luxury by album’s end.
This all makes Hell on Earth
an admirable album but one that’s not always easy to listen to. A few weeks ago I described Blu & Exile’s Below the Heavens
(2007) as essentially one big blank stare, but now I wish I’d withheld that criticism; here, rappers Prodigy and Havoc never once appear to blink. It makes for a brilliant study in psychology through aesthetics but only a mildly satisfying listening experience, the whole thing a sort of homogenous wash. The album’s cumulative effect is evinced by the fact that I can barely remember a single lyric afterwards, even though Mobb Deep enunciate their words perfectly well. One of the few lines that sticks out is Havoc’s “This rap shi
t is the bitch you shouldn’t marry into,” stuck near the end of the typically caliginous “Bloodsport”. It’s an affectation common to the genre, that sort of disdain for the art form these artists ostensibly care enough about to have accumulated a now bordering-on-extensive discography. But it speaks volumes about Hell on Earth
, which seems like the product not of love or even of a specific creative urge but rather of an instinctual need
to rap that has gradually turned pathogenic, even hateful. That leaves the album feeling somehow important, yes, but it also leaves its audience out in the cold--after all, what can a blank stare foster in its recipient but the very same reaction?