“There’s a war goin’ out on outside no man is safe from.”
Even the most casual of Mobb Deep fans would be able to tell you about their first experience hearing those opening lyrics to one of the darkest, most poignant rap songs in history. It’s the type of sentiment you hear from a person who’s seen too much; an individual battle-hardened by the conflicts unavoidable in their daily life. The ominousness of the way it’s phrased feels claustrophobic, with each passing second you spend trying to interpret its meaning only allowing the walls around you to narrow tighter than the hallways of the Queensbridge Housing Projects. The purposefully abstract mention of “war” juxtaposed against “safe” feels timeless in its many interpretations; there is always a war, and you are never safe.
These were the opening lyrics to Prodigy’s verse on “Survival of The Fittest.”
Much of Prodigy’s brilliance of a rapper can be explained by listening to “Survival of The Fittest,” and from the perspective of his opening verse. Upon his death yesterday, our natural inclination is to remember Prodigy at his most iconic moment with Mobb Deep’s first major hit, “Shook Ones Pt. ll.” After listening to the song again today, and after thousands of previous listens, what struck me the most about Prodigy’s legendary verse is its almost boastful narrative structure.
From his opening line, “I got you stuck off the realness, we be the infamous,” to the lyrical onslaught that occurs afterward, “Shook Ones Pt. ll” feels specific in its threat to “halfway crooks” and anyone else standing in Mobb Deep’s way. It’s one of the great introductions to a rap group of all-time, but it only showcases some of Prodigy’s elite lyricism. “Survival of The Fittest,” on the other hand, feels like The Godfather Part ll to “Shook Ones Pt. ll” in the way it expands the scope of the group's narrative, and to an even bigger conflict than either man.
Much of Prodigy’s career was about war, in some sense of the word, and “Survival of The Fittest” remains his magnum opus in terms of illustrating war’s biggest casualties. The Infamous' second single didn’t share the same kinetic energy that “Shook Ones Pt. ll” created, and instead functioned as a slow burn. References to “halfway crooks” only served to contextualize the world we were being dropped back into, except this time it wasn’t just Prodigy at war with those around him that he considered inferior, it was Prodigy at war with the world.
Lyrics like, “Now we all grown up and old, and beyond the cop's control / They better have the riot gear ready / Tryin' to bag me and get rocked steady,” felt less like arrogant threats and more like the effects of attrition by enemies on all sides. This was the voice of a man at wit’s end, completely aware of the darkness surrounding him.
Other instances like, “New York got a ni**a depressed / So I wear a slug-proof underneath my Guess / God bless my soul, before I put my foot down and begin to stroll,” only worked to further prove that same point. Prodigy’s brilliance, as we would find on other tracks like “Hell on Earth (Front Lines),” “Party’s Over” and “Temperature’s Rising,” always stemmed from his choice of brutality over showmanship. He trimmed the lyrical fat at the most important times and in songs like “Survival of the Fittest,” his most illustrative lyrical pictures painted always felt clearest because of that candidness.
There is a timeless quality to Prodigy’s verse on “Survival of The Fittest” that transcends any surface level interpretation that only involves Queensbridge, New York, or even just Mobb Deep. In other words, the verse, much like many of Prodigy’s finest moments, is worth remembering because of the emotions its author evokes. Prodigy’s verse is full of the primal instincts that each of us possesses, even if most of us could never possibly relate to the circumstances he grew up around. Emotions like anger, fear, self-reflection and regret riddle the organs of the track, and the very specific, offhand references to “mixin vodka and milk” or “puffin lye relaxin” serve to enhance those very emotional foundations the song is built upon.
Survival, for Prodigy, is the greatest war of all, and one that not only he was fighting.
That timelessness is also what we can ultimately use to define Prodigy’s career upon his passing. It’s why, 20 years later, the most important themes of “Survival of The Fittest,” and the illustration of what it is truly like for a young black man trying to survive in America, feel so real even today. Even if that’s something someone like myself could never understand, an appreciation of its purpose can never wither. The lyrics, even if they remain specific to his own experience, carry something beneath them about the ways in which we choose to battle against the forces that be. Whether those wars are outside with us versus the world, whether it’s a war within ourselves, or whether it’s a war for our very survival, those themes were never going to pass on with Prodigy and he knew it.
More than anyone, Prodigy was born fighting for that survival even before the hardships of Queensbridge waged war against him. Born with sickle-cell anemia, everything that encompassed his career, every ounce of the weight carried on tracks like “Survival of The Fittest,” can be found in the way he spoke about his disease. In an interview with Booth editor-in-chief Z back in 2008, Prodigy had this to say about his public fight with sickle-cell anemia:
DJBooth: The way people handle disease and illness vary. Some like to keep it private; others feel it's very important to let the world know what they're battling. You've made your fight against sickle-cell anemia very public. Was that a hard decision?
Prodigy: No, definitely not, 'cause it's something I was born with, and I deal with it every day. It's definitely not a hard decision. I love to promote good health and certain things that you're supposed to be doin' with your diet, because I want other people with sickle-cell to learn how I live, because a lot of times we do shows, and after the show a fan will come up to me like, “Yo, how you got so much energy on stage?” and “How do you this for so long, and live this lifestyle. Like, I got sickle-cell too; I don't know how you do it.” I always tell 'em, it's the diet and the mental attitude too. I definitely put it out there so people can learn from my situation, and see what I go through, and hopefully, I can inspire other people with sickle-cell to get their stuff together and get out there and do what they gotta do. Don't let it hold you back.
Prodigy wasn’t a man afraid of his own wars within himself, even if the battle was ultimately unwinnable. Although his interview and a track like “Survival of The Fittest” couldn’t feel more different in terms of purpose and substance, as well as spanning 13 years apart, it isn’t hard to see that same self-aware, brutally honest individual in both instances. He was a warrior, through and through.
Moments like "Survival of the Fittest" proved that Prodigy didn’t just rap because he wanted to, but because it was the only way he knew how to survive.