The genesis of hardcore rap on the East Coast occurred during the early nineties. While in the West the primacy of Death Row Records continued seemingly unabated, the scene in the East began to take form. With the release of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
(1994), and Ready to Die
(1994) East Coast rap gained increased national recognition and, perhaps more importantly, commercial viability. Enter the year 1995 and the release of The Infamous
. Prodigy and Havoc brought the style of East Coast rap pioneered by Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan, and the Notorious B.I.G. to its stylistic apex, infusing the East Coast sound with an intensely nihilistic (of the kind espoused by Russian anarchists in the nineteenth century) and apocalyptic sentiment.
At this point, you can probably guess the nature of the subject matter on The Infamous
. It should be obvious that you will not find the verses from the abstract, as you would with Tribe Called Quest. Nor will you find lyrics with a political, black-nationalist stance, like Public Enemy. No, for the most part Prodigy and Havoc set about weaving the kinds of narratives that provide fuel for every critic who attacks rap as glorying in the amoral. Explicit, first-person narratives fuel The Infamous
, reveling in armed robbery, sex, and murder. If this sounds like every other gangster rap album, it is because Mobb Deep does not do anything new thematically. Nas employed explicit descriptions of street life, as seen through his eyes, on Illmatic
. Mobb Deep takes the stylistic trend of East Coast rap to another level. You feel like you are watching each scene build; it feels real. Every description of murder and incarceration feels genuine. Prodigy and Havoc flow with a tone that takes both pleasure and pain in an environment that values nothing. They do not seem to glory in murder; so much as, they resign themselves to the harsh reality of the surroundings they portray.
So much for the atmosphere and theme, let’s move to more concrete matters. Neither Prodigy nor Havoc has an overly complex flow, but this is not a negative. Both have a rhythmic, steady delivery that flows easily from line to line. The delivery complements the lyrics perfectly, nothing else matters anyway. In terms of guest spots, The Infamous
does not disappoint. Nas, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, and Big Noyd fit perfectly with Prodigy and Havoc, each bringing their own distinctive vocal approach to the album. The first three are Mobb Deep’s stylistic forerunners. Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest contributes verses to “Drink Away the Pain (Situations),” which is somewhat of a departure from the rest of The Infamous
. The production on the song employs horn samples over an old-school drum loop and jazz influenced bass line, unsurprisingly reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest. Q-Tip’s verse, delivered in his distinctive, higher pitched style, is a highlight.
The production on The Infamous
is the equal of the vocal work, sounding sonically akin to RZA production. Drum loops, dominated by snare work, form the basis of much of the production. The rhythmic patterns are interesting, but are little more than foundations. The drums lend The Infamous
an underlying old school that contrasts with the nihilism of the subject matter, betraying a joy in lyricism and world-play. The use of dark, often understated bass lines coupled with brooding, stuttering piano progressions annihilates the upbeat feel of the drums. “Survival of the Fittest” samples a simple piano piece that sounds distorted like old vinyl records. Sinister horns float in and out of the background, adding to the pre-apocalyptic feel of the track. When Prodigy raps, “I'm goin out blastin, takin my enemies with me/And if not, they scarred, so they will never forget me/Lord forgive me the Hennesey got me not knowin’ how to act/I'm fallin and I can't turn back,”
over the production, it is bone chilling. This is the kind of negative atmosphere that most black metal records dream of creating.
Another interesting piece is “Just Step Prelude,” where Prodigy and Havoc contribute one verse each without any beat behind them, allowing their ability to flow rhythmically to rise to the forefront. On “Temperature’s Rising,” the producers employ R&B vocals, the only on the album, to create the hook. The lyrics themselves take the form of one-sided conversations between Mobb Deep and a mutual friend forced into exile after committing murder. The song leads the listener to feel sympathy for the fugitive. “Shook Ones Pt. II” contains the most chilling lines on the album, backed by a wandering piano loop, which periodically drops out:
I'm only nineteen but my mind is old/And when the things get for real my warm heart turns cold/Another nigga deceased, another story gets told/It ain't nothin' really/Hey, yo dun spark the Phillie/So I can get my mind off these yellowbacked niggas/Why they still alive I don't know, go figure/Meanwhile back in Queens the realness is foundation/If I die I couldn't choose a better location/When the slugs penetrate you feel a burning sensation/Getting closer to God in a tight situation/Now, take these words home and think it through/Or the next rhyme I write might be about you
The feeling conveyed by those lines over the sparse production is surreal, suggesting a mind consumed in a disregard for life and witness to constant violence. “Shook Ones Pt. II” is the sum of all that The Infamous
is: unrelenting, haunting, nihilistic, apocalyptic. I see the album as the epitome of hardcore rap. If you are a fan of any kind of rap, especially East Coast hardcore in the vein of Nas of the Wu-Tang, this belongs in your collection. Even if you don not like rap, check this out for the narratives and atmosphere. Whether played out of car speakers or in headphones, The Infamous
does not disappoint.