My junior year of high school, I'd grown so self-conscious about the size and shape of my head that the mere thought of the bus rides to and from school and to and from basketball games induced anxiety and dread in me. Those bus rides were prime opportunities for "ripping sessions." And despite my status as a bit of a basketball star, my unusually large head — and my abject terribleness at ripping — made me an easy and conspicuous target, as my noggin would hover over the back of the seats, like an extra large organic egg in a zero gravity hanger. I didn't dare actually reveal how bothered I was by this. I'd laugh off and sometimes even laugh with the jokes; never until literally just right now admitting that the only reason I'd rush to sit in the back of the bus wasn't so I could see everyone in front of me but so that no one could sit behind and see me.
But on the days I couldn't sit in the back, my disc-man provided a remedy. A force field shielding me from the rest of the world. Because if a rip lands in an empty forest, it doesn't make a sound. And on many of those trips to and from school and to and from basketball games, Mobb Deep would blast through my headphones and jolt my eardrums; allowing me to escape the bucolic and terrifying eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh and become subsumed by the safety of the stark and nihilistic reality created by two depressed teenagers from Queensbridge.
I've believed, for years, that Hell on Earth was either the best or the second best (with GZA's Liquid Swords possibly being the best) "Cold Weather rap album" ever. For context, a Cold Weather rap album is one that's best appreciated while listening to it in earphones instead of in a car or at a club and when the weather outside is brick cold. And Havoc's haunting and harrowing production combined with Prodigy's aggressively morose baritone to create the perfect atmosphere for their world weary tales about drug dealing, robbery, murder, and their primary subject, irrepressible, paralyzing, and numbing sadness. Yes. Sadness. Mobb Deep was the saddest rap duo of all-time. Maybe the saddest regardless of genre.
I, a naturally melancholy-ass nigga, naturally gravitated to their lyrical melancholy and the feelings their music would evoke. It was a match made in introversion heaven. I had resting ice grill face, and their albums were basically 60-minute long ice grills with sentience. But the sadness that permeated through their music didn't become evident to me until I was an adult. Their tales about crime and violence and prison were defined by reluctant resignation, not the boast and bombast drug/trap/gangsta rap is often characterized by. It's evident throughout each of their first two albums. The title track of Hell on Earth might be the most enthusiastically unhappy song ever made. Their most popular song ("Shook Ones Part II") is basically elevator music to Perdition. Prodigy didn't limit this despondence to Mobb Deep tracks, either. Whenever he was featured on someone else's song, he was prone to do it there too.
Listen, for instance, to his chorus from Cam'ron's "Losin Weight."
Why I feel like I'm losing weight?
Why I ain't got no money, unless I'm moving weight?
Why my life depend on what I'mma do today
Why I can't move away
It's just loot and me, without the scrutiny
Niggas screwing me; 2 and 3 truancies
4 shots, 1 toolie, G.. 1 eulogy
Make sure my mother and girl is smothered in pearls
When a nigga under the world
There's nothing cool or fun about drug dealing the way Prodigy raps about it. It's depressing and stressing and nerve-wrecking, and that all comes out in the hook. This is basically a 60 word synopsis of seasons one through four of The Wire.
And, as most who follow hip-hop know, Prodigy lived with sickle-cell anemia; a genetic abnormality known for inducing debilitating fatigue and bouts of mind and spirit-numbing pain. So a song like "Drink Away The Pain" feels and sounds like a clever and upbeat allegory until you realize that it was created when Prodigy was still a teenager. Which meant he'd already been self-medicating with weed and alcohol and whatever the hell else enough to write such a creative song about it.
Prodigy, the person who helped bring me peace on the back of those bus rides in high school, died today. He was 42. He lived his entire life in pain. And I hope he finally has some of the peace he was able to give me.