Mobb Deep came into the rap world scowling. On the cover of their 1993 debut Juvenile Hell, the two baby-faced Queensbridge kids, Prodigy and Havoc, lounge on the lip of a dumpster, staring down the barrel of a camera. Prodigy flaunts a pair of Timbalands—all the better for stomping your face, of course. Havoc wears no shirt, but he does sport big shades. And as though plucked from a streetwise version of Mortal Kombat, at that moment a smash in arcades, he leans a sharpened scythe across his brawny left shoulder.
The image didn't take off, at least not until 1995's The Infamous arrived. That album's tortured, weed-burnt boom bap made Mobb Deep to be less mean-muggers on the fringe and more the frightening third part of a terrifying triumvirate of incredibly bright, deeply troubled New York rappers, alongside the Wu-Tang Clan and Nas. Collectively, they marked a darker aesthetic for the rap of '90s New York, previously exemplified by the next-to-the-hood nerds of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest.
Still, next to such rough company as Wu-Tang and Nas, Mobb Deep stood out for feckless nihilism. Eight-strong and snarling, Wu-Tang maintained a rugged and raw utopianism. Nas was a street scholar on the hunt for big ideas, even if his hand was firmly gripping a gun. Only Mobb Deep seemed perpetually pissed off. The Infamous' terrifying single, "Shook Ones Pt. II," remains a peak of dead-eyed hip-hop in a golden era of similar hits. Over alley-stalking atmosphere provided by Havoc's creeping beat and switchblades of synthesizer noise, Prodigy stakes out a cutthroat worldview: "I'm only 19 but my mind is older/And when the things get for real my warm heart turns cold/Another nigga deceased, another story gets told/It ain't nothing really."
Nearly 20 years later, those lines scan like a summation of the way both the music industry and trends have handled Mobb Deep. Rap's success was built on the backs of scrappy, deep-thinking dudes like Prodigy and Havoc, but the market abandoned them because they couldn't shape up and sell out once the stakes got higher. These days, Prodigy and Havoc don't even like one another all that much, especially during a decade defined by commercial stumbles and group beef. Yet they trudge on, preparing to release The Infamous Mobb Deep, their eighth album and first since 2006.
When Mobb Deep ascended in the mid-'90s, rap was becoming the dominant music of pop culture. The form was nebulous enough, though, that the cards remained somewhat in the hands of its creators and innovators. A confused industry listened to the makers of the music, guys like Prodigy and Havoc. Though 1996's Hell On Earth had even less pop appeal than The Infamous, it still debuted at No. 6 on Billboard. A simmering, afterhours-club pump and a Lil' Kim remix pulled 1999's Murda Muzik along, but it seemed worlds apart from the rising popularity of Total Request Live and Britney Spears. That records so unforgiving made it anywhere near the mainstream seems impossible in retrospect; this was the era where realer-than-real rappers found out just what they could get away with.
Rap's growth into a big, shiny industry was inevitable. The deaths of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. killed two of its major stars and enabled a big-money clampdown on gritty spitting and street beef. Mobb Deep tried to follow that edict: The slightly more radio-oriented albums, 2001's Infamy and 2004's Amerikaz Nightmare, followed, but they couldn't turn these street-pop tricks even if they tried. (And they barely did.) Mobb Deep were products of a particularly gully moment for hip-hop, and they'd helped rap become the most popular music in the world. They were trapped by their own invention.
But instead of quitting, they signed to 50 Cent's monolithic goon-pop label, G-Unit, and called their 2006 G-Unit-assisted album Blood Money, as if admitting that the decision to sell out was purely cynical made it easier. Signing to the moneymaking G-Unit proved to be a wise move, especially as record sales continued to crater. When Prodigy went to jail in 2007 thanks to a gun possession charge, they needed all the help they could get.
G-Unit generously let Mobb Deep go in 2009, and with Prodigy out of jail, the group tried to jumpstart itself in 2011, returning with the free, downloadable EP Black Cocaine. It was a hesitant, low-stakes return, but it showed that Mobb Deep were, once again, interested in new models. A new, Internet-savvy underground of hip-hop, epitomized by Odd Future, had seized the web's distributive powers and crafted a free culture-fueled moment for rap that didn't demand Billboard approval. But just as the Internet almost resurrected Mobb Deep, it soon almost killed them. The group went on "indefinite hiatus" after Havoc took to Twitter to suggest Prodigy was gay.
That Mobb Deep are still around at all, releasing sturdy solo projects and now a proper group album, is a little miracle. The pair patched things up in 2013, going on tour and teasing new music. Their story is so frontloaded with minor victories and massive disappointments that it's a bit tragic. They helped build an industry that has mostly seemed to care less whether or not they collapsed under that industry's new weight.
The Infamous Mobb Deep pushes back to those upstart, mid-'90s glory days, both by featuring fellow long-haulers Nas, Busta Rhymes and the Lox and by including a set of 10 unreleased tracks from the sessions that birthed 1995's The Infamous. Powered by producer Illmind's clenched-fist snares and paranoid chimes, the new single, "Say Something," might even scan as a relic of those 1995 sessions, if you only dropped the fidelity a little. Mobb Deep sound worse for wear on the track, sure, but that's the point: They've always been working their way out of the gutter, no matter how close to success they've gotten.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Survival of the grimmest"