Mobb Deep is really out here.
The ‘90s legacy rap duo of Albert “Prodigy” Johnson and Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita returned to Austin Friday night after what must have felt like a week-long residency in town during South By Southwest (during which the rap titans performed, like, eight shows). As a partial result, The Parish was maybe half-shook this time, ripe with friends of opening locals Phranchyze and Subkulture Patriots. Despair for the sparse crowd was summed up nicely by Pitchfork and Austin American-Statesman contributor, Andy O’Connor.
Ain't nobody at this Mobb Deep show
— Andy O'Connor (@andy_oconnor) April 12, 2014
For its part, the Queensbridge duo was prompt, courteous, and exemplary by the time it snuck on stage around midnight. It was an autopilot set list that ran just under an hour: New songs from the just-released Infamous Mobb Deep double album (half new music, half unreleased sessions from the band’s mid-’90s pinnacle); comfortably ending on its most lasting, cutting street anthems, ‘99’s “Quiet Storm,” and ‘95’s Hall of Fame rallying cry, “Shook Ones (Part II).” In between, songs were punctuated with the reassuring, time-honored sound of breaking glass, or the touring DJ would halt the beat so that Prodigy could close out a verse acapella, punctuating cadences like a mafia henchman stomping out a rival curled up in the fetal position.
Prodigy dedicated songs to anyone that has “ever been locked up” at one point. This resonated because, frankly, if you’re brown or black in this country and pushing 30, it’s kind of difficult not to get arrested for something technically unlawful but minor and stupid. I know I have. Twenty-four hours in a Travis County cell for hosting a house party in college was prerequisite enough, and so I raised my middle finger in the air.
That’s the power of hip-hop: These hail mary murder mysteries aren’t for people that did the crime. They’re written for witnesses. It’s time we appreciate that. Think of the enduring knock against Mobb Deep’s career, and even the guy that essentially ended its career aspirations in ‘94, Nas, upon the release of Illmatic because both were from Queens and one guy’s music was, at the time, infinitely more vital: “You ain’t live it you witnessed it from your folk’s pad, scribbled in your notepad, and created your life.”
But people that murder other people are bad people. People that grow up around violence and petty theft, with schoolyard friends taking standardized tests in house arrest anklets, should connect and create most sharply, deftly. Ditto in terms of identifying with these specifically cited books of sacred rhyme from a bygone era wherein, coincidentally, a collective like Mobb Deep could go global and sell millions off minimalist, self-produced narratives about the hustle.
“Make sure you post pics . . . download [The Infamous Mobb Deep] on your phone right now,” Prodigy said with awkward conviction.
Mobb Deep, specifically, has caught a great deal of grief over the years for a lack of street toughness as it relates to the game. From the Summer Jam incident to a recent intra-band beef that stemmed from the softest of reasons (mean tweets that Havoc directed at Prodigy), these dudes seem particularly sensitive and combustible. Smart, awkward AP class kids sharing an alphabetically designated study hall with everyone else.
It’s probably why Prodigy made news this month for attacking a rock critic that had the audacity to . . . review a Mobb Deep record.
Who the fuck is jayson greene at http://t.co/qmIgcr2s1v??? We looking for u bitch boy
— PRODIGY MOBBDEEP (@PRODIGYMOBBDEEP) April 9, 2014
Prodigy would later claim that what bothered him was a white outsider trying to color within the lines of hip-hop and that it wasn’t Greene’s place to comment because he didn’t understand. This is, make no mistake, hypocritical bullshit. Public art should never fear outside critiquing because the whole point is that it is created for the world to consume. It can be gross when halfway crooks like most of Noisey’s clown college writers delve into rap with the eager confidence of a 21-year-old with his hand up in a discussion lab. But the alternative is not for the medium to state sanction its critics.
Anyway, Prodigy’s tweet struck me as textbook lashing out because Greene didn’t love the new stuff and fawned over the old stuff. The ‘90s are long dead but rap fans still like to attack modern rappers as if they have any sort of skin in the game. Nevermind that it’s an expressionist genre that rewards experimentation and bravery from new voices. At least The Infamous Mobb Deep enjoyed a token top 10 Billboard debut.
If there was any more conclusive evidence that even the best hip-hop from my formative years doesn’t translate, 30 minutes after Mobb Deep’s Parish performance I’m at a friend’s house for a screening / streaming of OutKast’s Coachella reunion. It was great at first, until you realized that Andre 3000’s interest levels could use a little more in the monitor, and the EDM-bred crowd was perplexed at the lack of lights, intensity. What distinguishes OutKast from Mobb Deep most fundamentally is that massive pop stage toward the end run of ‘Kast records. Even “Hey Ya,” a Grammy-gobbling biggest song in the world (10 years ago) barely moved the mass needle.
Despite OutKast’s infinitely superior catalog, my takeaway from both performances is that OutKast’s guest-infused, polar bear-wielding Disney on Ice spectacle was a miscalculated, forced gathering that halfway worked. Mobb Deep–a few hours earlier–was dignified and hungry. The golden age of half-full venues with strong local support and artists that actively create (and don’t mind burning through the back catalogue) is still pretty great.
* Live photos from Mobb Deep’s headlining concert at The Parish on Apr. 11, 2014.