"With 'The Infamous,' Mobb Deep invented a feeling, one that was more important than any individual word, chorus, or rhyme. All of New York was embracing degraded production at the time, but Havoc pushed beyond the low-resolution samples of RZA's 'Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)' into near-total abstraction, producing a masterpiece of low, muffled, and malevolent sounds."—Jayson Greene
Coldness radiates from the piano keys as “Survival of the Fittest” begins. Before a single rhyme is rapped, the underworldly piano is leading listeners somewhere bleak and unforgiving. It’s the slow, daunting build up of a roller coaster ascending to the highest point before dropping at the speed of an Acme anvil that makes the seconds unnerving. A strange, almost taunting siren can be heard right before the drums drop, further warning that you’ve ventured into a place of peril.
There are no better words to begin a song that’s both thrilling and frightening than “There’s a war goin’ on outside no man is safe from.”
Mood and atmosphere are what Havoc crafted when he sampled Barry Harris and Al Cohn. Creating based on what’s around you, the very sound can be reflective of home. Havoc’s home was Queensbridge, New York, the largest public housing project in North America. What the production captures is the chill and ruggedness easily associated with a place that has devoured weaker souls. Mobb Deep’s creative approach wouldn’t have gravitated toward a sound so dark and merciless if it wasn’t for RZA’s production blueprint and their surroundings. Queensbridge was the muse that inspired their timeless descent into darkness.
What has always impressed me about Mobb Deep’s The Infamous is how each beat and rhyme never leaves the underbelly of anguish. LL Cool J was dominating radio with “Doin' It”; fusing soft hip-hop with doe-eyed R&B, he won with a crossover worthy of Allen Iverson's applause. Prodigy and Havoc could have attempted some form of replication to achieve similar success, following in the footsteps of the seasoned Queens emcee. They didn’t. Commercial influence doesn’t exist on The Infamous. There’s not a touch of glitter or any suggestion that this album was crafted for radio consumption. A realness is buried in the DNA of each of the album's 16 songs, an embedded truth that isn’t always apparent in rap but can be found in any courtroom where sworn honesty is the only kind. It's as if Mobb Deep swore they'd be honest, promising every boy and girl in their beloved hood that they will paint their front and backyards with explicit accuracy.
There was a side of New York that wasn’t being appropriately represented, a sound that Mobb Deep dared to make its signature. LL was still New York, Nas was still New York, and so on and so on―a city overflowing with music and musicians cannot have one face or voice. Within the layers of diversity, identity matters. New York needed Mobb Deep’s interpretation of their world the same way it needed A Tribe Called Quest. Both groups leaned heavily on jazz sampling to build their universes, but with vastly different sonic results. When you build a product that’s based on the inner world and not the outer world it births a very distinctive offspring. So many sounds and styles will forever be intertwined with the very men and state that birthed and bred them.
One man can carry a crown and sit upon a throne, but a sole king cannot represent a musical kingdom. It was the crown that T.I. and Shawty Lo once beefed over, despite the Atlanta neighborhood of Bankhead needing both of their voices. There was room for “You Don’t Know Me” and “Dun Dun.” Atlanta would not be the same without Jeezy and Gucci Mane, Thug Motivation 101 shares a similar importance as Trap House. Even if the concept of regional music has suffered due to the internet breaking down barriers, no longer keeping us isolated to the noise of our hometowns, regional hip-hop matters a great deal. A great example is how Big Boi, Young Thug and 2 Chainz all recently dropped albums on the same day. Three different projects, three different sounds, but all hailing from the same city. This is a level of representation one artist can not incarnate.
Big Boi represents an era of the past, a time when OutKast was an outfit of unpredictable musical explorers. As a solo artist and living legend, Big continued to follow the beat of his own funky drum instead of attempting a youthful transformation. 2 Chainz fits into the present tense, a trap rapper who contains essential elements of the Trap Muzik that T.I. made infamous. Adapting and adjusting allowed him to survive the last 20 years in this industry and just now reach the peak of commercial success and visible adoration. He beat all the odds, dodged many pitfalls, and came out a giant. These are two older, more seasoned artists who have found their respected lanes.
Young Thug, on the other hand, is an anomaly. To call him a trap rapper seems shortsighted; each album he moves further from the traditions of his contemporaries. Beautiful Thugger Girls is a genre-blender that could be a glimpse into the future, but the future is uncertain with Young Thug, an artist who lives in the moment for only a moment. Tomorrow his eccentric rhyme style and melodic musing could be delivered over gospel organs and Kirk Franklin sermons. He took experimenting where Big Boi would never go, stretched trap aesthetics beyond 2 Chainz' imagination, and broke the limits of weirdness that has been attached to him. A true oddity. A true ATLien.
Chance The Rapper and Chief Keef are musically incompatible. Chance chased after the color of gospel and jazz during Keef’s rise as the face of cold and thunderous drill music. The differences are too apparent to list, but they are both connected to their shared homeland of Chicago. In the early '10s, an interesting split occurred, though. As the Windy City saw a band of drill artists sign major label record deals, Chance and a company of artistic poets started to build followings online. If you watched the two at once, it was impossible to deny their duality. Chance and Keef, King L and Mick Jenkins, Lil Durk and Vic Spencer, Lil Bibby and NoName―the differing narratives showcase the many neighborhoods of Chicago.
From harrowing street tales to poetic musing on the city's state, a vast array of perspectives was being presented. Keef and L saw their commercial peaks in 2013, as guests on Kanye’s Yeezus. Three years later, Chance and Vic Mensa were the new Chicago kids on The Life Of Pablo. Acid Rap may be the acclaimed classic but Bang, Back From The Dead and Finally Rich also deserve to be written in history. Chicago’s renaissance doesn’t start with Chance, it's intertwined with Keef, drill, and all the good, bad and ugly sparked from a teenager under house arrest.
Like Chicago, Southern California has a similar duality with artists like Kendrick and YG, Vince Staples and ScHoolboy Q, Boogie and Jay Rock. Different areas in California raised them, heavily influencing their real-life experiences, but their approaches differ.
Both Kendrick and YG went the narrative route with their debut albums, creating a cinematic, day-in-the-life audiobook. We see the madness of their lifestyles—there’s no prison in Kendrick’s story, and YG's is absent of any good kids. G-funk and gangster rap are still heavily affiliated with Cali’s sunshine but every artist mentioned has approached the medium with fresh ideas and a genre-pushing passion. Summertime ‘06 and Blank Face LP both earned a heaping of acclaim, but the master craftsmanship of both artists wasn't enough to push them into the upper echelon of rap stardom. The lack of widespread attention doesn’t negate that 90059 was Jay Rock at his finest, an artistic facelift. Boogie’s Thirst 48 also fell through the cracks despite being an applaud-worthy follow-up to The Reach. California is many things but it is far from artistically motionless.
The homes of grandparents tend to carry a distinguished smell. A natural scent that the nose and brain will register moments after inhaling. Eyes aren’t required to view a full head of gray hairs to know you are in a house of elders; the first whiff upon entering will let it be known. Music works in a similar fashion, the way we innately register sound to a person or a place. This big, growing genre may devour its young but a unique voice cannot be silenced. Finding that voice, crafting the sound of home, building a universe for listeners to be lost in and fearlessly giving that to the world can change a coast, alter a genre, and immortalize your name amongst the great.
Hip-hop doesn’t always reward the most talented but it will allow the most original a life that will exist long after death.
By Yoh, aka The Infamous Yoh, aka @Yoh31