It’s just eight words — “I’m only 19, but my mind is old” — but it might be the most paralyzing rap lyric ever written, the kind of declaration that makes your pulse quicken while your blood cools in your capillaries, the kind of blunt-force poetry that activates an impossible swirl of excitement, dread, sorrow and sympathy. It arrived in 1995 on the lips of Prodigy, co-founder of the New York duo Mobb Deep, in a song called “Shook Ones (Part II),” which, amazingly, begins with dedication to those who “ain’t got no feelings.” By the end of Prodigy’s opening verse, you’ve felt everything.
Prodigy — who died on Tuesday at 42 after being hospitalized for complications related to sickle cell anemia — grew up in a rage. First, he was angry at his body, which always seemed to be losing a painful fight with the blood disorder that would ultimately end his life. Then, he was angry at a God who wouldn’t intervene, therefore must not exist. That’s how a child becomes a nihilist, how a young mind becomes old.
“I was an angry kid because of the sickle cell,” he told NPR in 2013. “So I liked the anger in hip-hop. That’s what attracted me to it; that’s what made me want to do it. It helped me get my aggression out.”
Music offered catharsis, but as a rapper, Prodigy quickly learned how to surface his personality with artful restraint. When Mobb Deep first formed in a Manhattan high school, his co-pilot, Havoc, said, Prodigy wore so much jewelry, he could hear him clanking down the hallway. But the music they eventually made together would prioritize grime over flash, and the group’s two most extraordinary albums — 1995’s “The Infamous” and 1996’s “Hell on Earth” — were instantly lauded for their shadowy grit. This was a rough-and-ready sound designed to leave bruises, stitched together from samples that crackled and hissed, noise contaminating signal. But even at its coarsest, Mobb Deep’s music always had a certain elegance to it, and it was flush with mood.
Much of that had to do with Prodigy’s evocative rhymes, which made good on his stage name, recapping teenage tales of crimes and punishments that were almost too grim to believe. “I’m lethal when I see you, there ain’t no sequel,” he warned on “The Infamous,” making you wonder how a young-old mind this callous could still arouse your sympathy.
To understand how is to try to understand how human beings survive the unfathomable cruelty of life — a cruelty formidable enough to make a child renounce his faith, but not enough to make a man forfeit his humanity. Maybe we should honor the request Prodigy made in the penultimate line of his “Shook Ones (Part II)” verse: “Take these words home and think it through.”