Prodigy's Book: The Anti-Decoded

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A book review by Sameoldshawn

Albert “Prodigy” Johnson with Laura Checkoway: My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy (Simon & Schuster, 2011)

Prodigy of Mobb Deep is a hip-hop legend whose iconic songs and gritty lyrical style have earned him a place in the hip-hop Pantheon. However, his erratic behavior and less-than-stellar record in rap beefs (along with occasionally odd-seeming career choices) have made him a constant topic of “what-on-Earth-is-he-up-to-now?” speculation

Finally, after coming off of a three and a half year jail bid, P speaks for himself in a new memoir, assisted by Vibe writer Laura Checkoway

First off, for fans of P’s oft-insane prison letters hoping for more of the same, the book is surprisingly light on Malachi York-inspired rants about the Illuminati and such, though the rapper does mention both of his U.F.O. encounters and promises a future book solely devoted to how black people thrived for “millions of years” prior to African colonization.

Most importantly, for fans of Mobb Deep and the wave of early 90’s NYC rap, the book provides a front-line, if occasionally self-serving, view of the music and personalities of the era. Up-close portraits of Nas, Jay-Z, Cormega, N.O.R.E., Lil' Kim, Mary J. Blige, Raekwon, Tupac, 50 Cent, and more are scattered throughout the memoir, as are encounters with less well-known but still important figures like The Lost Boyz, E. Money Bags, and Queens street legend Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff.

There is also a real sense of what the QB projects were like for those who lived and hung out there, in a way that is often less than flattering to P and his friends. Tales abound of random fights, pointless slashings and shootings (including, in one memorable case, over a pair of Walkman speakers), and more. In reading the book, it seems that there was hardly a concert, promo event, or trip to the corner store that didn’t end in a massive fight or shoot-out.

While this all makes for plenty of entertaining reading, and the gossip is great (Mary J. came on to him! He knew that Tupac was certain Biggie wasn’t involved in the Quad shooting but pretended like he was as a PR stunt! He hooked up with Keyshia Cole! He and his friends once jumped N.O.R.E.!), there are issues with the book that get to some of interesting limitations of hip-hop as a genre and the personas involved in it.

The book has an “as-told-to” feel. Anecdotes often feel unfinished or like private jokes. Some have the feel of a story that is memorable to the author but just doesn’t translate well those who weren’t there (these are often accompanied by a “Kim, if you’re reading this, you must be laughing out loud by now” kind of note).

More important, though, are the “anti-Decoded” and “tough guy” themes. The former is that, in contrast to Decoded, the lyric-based Jay-Z “memoir”, this book focuses almost entirely on Prodigy’s life, with no real sense of what his music was about or what he thought about when writing it. Minus a brief acknowledgment that he fell off around the era of “Hey Luv”, P pays almost no attention to the craft of lyric-writing, ostensibly the only reason that people are interested in him in the first place. While the guns-and-drugs tales are interesting, a little less tabloid and a little more art would have been welcome.

Even more distracting, though, is P’s whole persona, and this is where the book intersects with larger issues in his genre. While Prodigy admits in the course of the book to many mistakes — doing too many drugs, cheating on his girl, losing focus on his music, making the wrong record deals — he never admits to being beaten at anything. He and his boys never lose a fight, no one ever beats him in a rap battle (Jay’s “Takeover” victory is dismissed by calling it a joke, and saying that Jay never dealt with the substantive “issues” in their beef), he never gets outsmarted by a label exec (any bad record deals are taken with full knowledge of their defects just to keep M.D. partner Havoc happy), etc.

He also has an overwhelming need to place himself at the center of everything substantial that happened in rap music in the 90’s. Nas being on “Verbal Intercourse”? P set that up. New York artists working with Southern rappers? That was him. Rappers rocking custom jewelry? Cam'ron wearing pink? East Coast rappers dissing the West? Biggie calling himself “Notorious”? All P. And so on

Prodigy would have seemed more human — more like “Albert Johnson” and less like “Prodigy the rapper” — if he could have admitted to defeat even a few times in the book. This, to be sure, is a problem with rap personas period, and not just in this memoir. The emphasis on being “real” often gets in the way of rappers seeming actually real — that is, like a person with flaws who doesn’t always come out on top. This becomes especially glaring over the course of a 300-page book in a way it often doesn’t in songs

So check out the book, especially if you’re a Mobb fan. But bear in mind that the tough-guy pose that works well on record does not a great memoir make. Prodigy’s refusal to display any vulnerability at all wears thin over the course of the book. If this had been more in the standard memoir tradition — with all the introspection and self-examination that implies — both the reader and, likely, P himself would have been better off..

A selection of classic Mobb Deep songs we’ve decoded in lieu of Prodigy: