More often than not, being a rapper involves prattling on about gunplay. No matter what an MC purports to be – a homicidal first-person shooter or a posi-rap backpacker who decries the nihilistic effects of dropping such volatile science – it’s almost a genre necessity that they hold strong opinions one way or another about firearms. Queensbridge, N.Y., duo Mobb Deep has always taken the barrels-and-
bullets talk one step further, into NRA territory: They love their heaters, their MAC-10s, their AKs. Almost every group or Mobb Deep-–affiliated solo track finds baby-faced Havoc and street-hardened Prodigy blasting some unfortunate adversary into next week. On last year’s Return of the Mac, Prodigy staged an aural bloodbath, flaunting cold steel, pulling stickups and grumbling threateningly over luxuriant ’70s soul productions spiced with producer Alchemist’s gunshot samples.
Call it inevitable or call it karma, but Prodigy won’t be gripping a piece again any time soon. When he was busted for making an illegal U-turn in late 2006, the cops discovered an unlicensed .22-caliber handgun; in March, he began serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence on the gun charge. All fans of gritty, hard-core New York hip-hop can do now is wait, pray – P suffers from sickle-cell anemia, and prison life is often randomly fatal – and mark time with the just-released HNIC 2.
A brooding half-hour suffused with desperate paranoia, Mac was conceived as a mix-tape prequel to HNIC 2 (an abbreviation of “Head Nigga in Charge”); given his incarceration and what led up to it, that disc seems to have been prophetic. Alchemist’s lush backdrops compensated for P’s lyrical slightness, suggesting that the main attraction would be more substantive.
Despite Prodigy’s boasts on “Illuminati,” where he fantasizes over alluring, robotic flutes about a powerful cabal’s plans to immobilize him (“P’s song is a natural tryptamine/My rhymes are so vivid you start to see things”) most of what the schizoid HNIC 2 has to offer is straight-up gangsta tropes interspersed with occasional, irrational freakouts. On the Sid Roams–produced yo-yo synth banger “Real Power Is People,” Prodigy pledges to give up drugs and drink and incite some sort of populist rebellion, but one song later (hauntingly tweaked-out “The Life”) he’s back to the proverbial block and its sundry trappings: “The violence don’t stop/The beef don’t cease/The money keep coming, the paper increase/The gunfire don’t end and people stay dyin’/So I’m gonna keep livin’ the life, damn right.” The sinister track “ABCs” pimps an alphabetic kiddies-turned-Chipmunks chorus when it isn’t asserting a microphone prowess over up-and-coming rivals that the infamous MC can’t really lay claim to anymore. And so on, and so on, a broken record: the drugs and the smoke, the sluts and the guns. By the finale, our host proclaims, “I want out,” and that statement rings as empty as his gunpowder rants.
What ultimately saves HNIC 2 is P’s gruff bark – with its disjointed quality, full of weight, gravity and authority – and the record’s woozy, menacing production. Like the mesmerizing hum of a broken air conditioner, it’s flavored background noise. Let’s hope that when – and if – Prodigy’s feet hit the bricks come 2011, he’s got some new tales to tell and he’s regained the narrative gusto to do them poetic justice.