My Infamous Life, the new memoir by classic rapper Prodigy of Mobb Deep, kicks off with a surprise: Albert "Prodigy" Johnson carries an amazing musical legacy in his genes. His grandfather Budd Johnson was a bebop saxophonist who worked with Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Ruth Brown, Gil Evans, Count Basie and Quincy Jones. His grandmother Bernice Johnson created an influential dance school in Jamaica, Queens and hung out with Lena Horne, Ben Vereen and Diana Ross. Prodigy's mother Frances Collins was a replacement member of the 60s girl group the Crystals. This gangsta rapper has some major musical roots.
But he struggled as a kid with sickle-cell anemia, a painful condition that helped him develop a stoic sense of life and a fervent, straight-edged drive. He and his high school buddy Havoc were still teenagers in 1993 when they put out the first Mobb Deep album. They were unknowingly at the vanguard of hiphop's greatest age, born in Queensbridge and the Lefrak projects, where Prodigy crossed paths with A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, the Large Professor, Onyx, Cormega and Capone-N-Noriega. The new gangsta sound spread through New York City, where the Queens rappers were joined by Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls, Lil Kim, Busta Rhymes and M.O.P. from Brooklyn, Mase, Big L and Cam'ron from Manhattan, Big Pun and Fat Joe from the Bronx, DMX and the L.O.X. from Yonkers. Mobb Deep fans, all of them.
But the feeling wasn't always mutual. My Infamous Life is Prodigy's record of a lifetime of beef, betrayal, victory and jealousy, all in a prose voice as taciturn and elegant as any Mobb Deep track. A remarkable percentage of this book is concerned with beefing, an art that Prodigy takes very seriously. Mobb Deep always had a rep for being "real" (you may remember how David Shields' literary study Reality Hunger enthused over Prodigy's delivery of the line "I got you stuck on the realness" from "Shook Ones Part II"), and from the beginning it was Prodigy's favorite sport to point out all the other rappers who couldn't back up their talk and make them defend their ground. He wasn't impressed by Jay-Z at all: "he was copying our style". He meets the up-and-coming Cam'ron, but is irritated when Cam'ron calls his home phone, because "I didn't like new people trying to be cool with me".
Reading this intense memoir, one has to wonder what all the beef is really about, and sometimes Prodigy trips up his own logic, as when he mocks Def Squad rapper Keith Murray for getting all twisted about an insult in a Mobb track ... and then gets himself all twisted about an insult in a Jay-Z track (this would eventually lead to Jay's "Takeover", unfortunately for Prodigy and Nas the most famous beef song of all time).
Why, the reader must wonder, does Prodigy care so much about fighting? The answer is that it's his art: his verses have always been about threat, violence, bravado, menace, self-protection. Mobb Deep is like french onion soup -- if you take the beef out of it, there's not much left.
The memoir follows Mobb's early career to its resurgence in 2006 after 50 Cent signs his heroes to G-Unit Records. Prodigy stays married, has three kids, keeps mostly straight, increases his social consciousness, leaves the hood for Rockland County, and goes to jail because of a very bad habit of riding dirty in big trucks (Lil' Wayne went to jail for the same minor crime, and we've really got to wonder about the laws that put talented rappers in jail for no good reasons). He explains a few things Mobb fans have always wondered about, like the origin of the "dun" language, as in:
Yo dun, spark the Philly
It turns out this is "thun language", and it's based on the way a Queensbridge friend with a lisp used to say "son". This information is worth the price of the book alone.
But there are moral lessons here too. Prodigy deals honestly with the pain he can't help feeling as other hiphop artists zoom past Mobb Deep in success and wealth. Some of the best passages in this memoir are the ones where Prodigy deals with his feelings about this, and his words here may speak to many creative people in many different fields.
The most surprising moment of all comes at the end, when Prodigy decides to go to a dentist and "fix his smile". Prodigy of Mobb Deep ... with a smile on his face? That's an image nobody will be able to picture.
But people write memoirs because they've changed their lives and improved their souls, and they want to explain how this came to pass. The book's last paragraph says it best:
I'm sure there will be plenty of newcomers filling our shoes when were have officially played out. I wish everybody wellness, love, peace and happiness. And anybody who thinks there's something soft about that. Ha! You've got a lot of growing up to do. I went through the same thing.
That's wisdom. This is the kind of message you write a memoir to deliver.