Mobb Deep: Still Infamous

East Coast hardcore icons come back strong

Twenty-four seconds into the video for "Taking You Off Here," the first single from Mobb Deep's new album, The Infamous Mobb Deep, Havoc — one-half of the New York City rap duo — fires a bullet into the bound and plastic-baggied head of a suspected undercover fed in the parking lot of an industrial building. He exhales a puff of cigar smoke and flashes what passes for a smile in Mobb Deep's grim world before launching into the song's first verse. "Block the corridor. Call the coroner," Havoc rhymes over a roller-coaster synth hook. "The drama's over, can't you feel the euphoria?" The message: Havoc and his longtime partner Prodigy are back in the brutal business of rap, and business is good. "It's a hardcore Mobb Deep album," Prodigy says. "Giving 'em what they love, what we usually do, man! That hardcore hip-hop."

Therein lies the legacy of one of the most respected and influential rap acts of the past two decades. Formed by high school classmates Havoc (Kejuan Muchita) and Prodigy (Albert Johnson) in the early 1990s, Mobb Deep has, over the years, maintained an almost singular focus: To paint a vivid picture of life in the tough neighborhoods of America's largest city, in particular the Queensbridge housing projects where Havoc grew up. Twenty years later, Mobb Deep's place in hip-hop's pantheon is already set as the duo returns from a brief hiatus with a new album and an extensive tour.

The Infamous Mobb Deep is the group's eighth album, and first since 2006's Blood Money, Mobb Deep's only release on 50 Cent's G-Unit Records label. It comes 19 years after The Infamous, Mobb Deep's steely sophomore effort that helped shape the shadowy street scenes and austere boom-bap of East Coast hip-hop in the '90s.

The Infamous Mobb Deep is also a double-album, featuring one disc of all new material and another of unreleased songs from the mid-'90s Infamous sessions. Consumers can also choose a third package that includes a re-mastered version of The Infamous as well. Longtime Mobb Deep heads will no doubt appreciate the old goodies on the extra discs, and they may be relieved to hear echoes of the group's classic sound — gritty, plainspoken and ominous — in songs like "Say Something," "Get Down," and "Dirt." Less welcome, perhaps, might be the slightly more pop-oriented "Lifetime" and "Low," which features a decidedly non-hardcore sung chorus. Later, "Legendary," with its endlessly ascendant vocal sample, more seamlessly merges the two aesthetics.

Non-musically, the two decades that have passed since Mobb Deep's most revered work have been anything but uneventful. The duo has had a handful of high-profile feuds with other rappers, inciting memorable disses in Jay-Z's "Takeover" and 2Pac's savage "Hit 'Em Up." They even feuded with each other in 2012, when a Havoc Twitter tirade against Prodigy led to a brief breakup. From 2008-2011, Prodigy served time in prison after pleading guilty to a gun possession charge in 2007. Through it all, the core element of the duo's music has remained. "We still pulling from the same places for our creativity," Prodigy says. "We still pulling from our life experiences and the shit that we go through. So there's no difference in, like, the creativity as far as the lyrics and stuff like that."

More noticeably different is the roster of guest MCs. Whereas Nas, Q-Tip, Ghostface Killah, and Raekwon lent verses to The Infamous, the new album features Snoop Dogg, Bun B, Juicy J, French Montana ... and, again, Nas. As for the beats, The Infamous was entirely self-produced, while the new one boasts an impressive slate of producers such as the Alchemist, Boi-1da, and Illmind supplementing Havoc's tracks.

"Back in the day, we couldn't afford to pay producers. We had to do it ourselves," Prodigy says. "Now we can give some other producers some light and show respect to those that we respect."

For years, both Prodigy and Havoc have fielded fans' requests for new Mobb Deep music "all the time, every day," Prodigy says, a testament to the group's lasting place in the minds of hip-hop fans. It's a status the duo never envisioned back in the day. "We weren't even really thinking legacy when we were kids. We were just thinking, 'We gotta make a dope fuckin' album,'" Prodigy says. "There's no possible way that we could've known that it was gonna affect people the way that it did," he continues. "We knew we had something important to us, though."

Twenty years later, what's important to Mobb Deep hasn't changed that much. The goal remains giving the people what they love: that hardcore hip-hop.