Prodigy, the hard-nosed Queens rapper who kiln-fired New York hip-hop into a thing of unhurried attitude and stoic elegance as half of the duo Mobb Deep, died Tuesday in Las Vegas. He was 42.
His publicist, Roberta Magrini, said that Prodigy was hospitalized there following a recent Mobb Deep performance, for complications of sickle cell anemia, which he had been battling since birth. She added that the cause of death had not yet been determined.
Prodigy brought a no-nonsense personality and a vivid eye for detail to his lyrics, brutal evocations of cruel street life in the Queensbridge housing projects that were sometimes achingly poetic: “I put my lifetime in between the paper’s lines,” he rapped on “Quiet Storm,” one of Mobb Deep’s most memorable songs.
On three essential albums — “The Infamous,” from 1995; “Hell on Earth,” from 1996; and “Murda Muzik,” from 1999 — Mobb Deep became standard bearers for the sound of New York rap: unfazed, unsentimental, uncompromising.
Prodigy was born Albert Johnson on Nov. 2, 1974, in Hempstead, N.Y., on Long Island, to Budd Johnson Jr. and Fatima Frances Johnson. His family was a musical one: His mother was a member of the famous girl group the Crystals in its later years, and his grandfather, Budd Johnson, was a well-regarded jazz saxophonist.
After a brief spell rapping under the name Lord-T (The Golden Child), Prodigy teamed up with the rapper and producer Havoc (born Kejuan Muchita) in his first year of high school. They initially performed together as Poetical Prophets, and they were selected for the Source magazine’s influential “Unsigned Hype” column. They soon changed their name to Mobb Deep, and in 1993 they released their first album, “Juvenile Hell.”
From the beginning, Prodigy was arrestingly lucid. On “Shook Ones (Part II),” the first single from “The Infamous” — one of hip-hop’s most influential albums — he delivered vicious, dispassionate threats in concise, graceful form:
Don’t make me have to call your name out
Your crew is featherweight; my gunshots’ll make you levitate
I’m only 19, but my mind is old
And when the things get for real, my warm heart turns cold.
The rest of the album was filled with bracing storytelling rap on songs like “Cradle to the Grave” and “Up North Trip.” This was hip-hop’s toughest era, and few were more convincing — or more distinguished — than Prodigy, who rapped with what sounded like earned iciness.
He remained in peak form over the duo’s next two albums and on his solo debut, “H.N.I.C.,” released in 2000. Sometimes he would render a horrific scene with nimble syllables: “Get chopped up, grade-A meat, something delicious/And laced back up, two G’s worth of stitches.” And sometimes he would slip into lamentation: “The streets raised me crazy, now I’m immune to it/So when they start shooting, we don’t stop the music.”
Prodigy was also embroiled in some of hip-hop’s most memorable beefs. He took on 2Pac on “L.A., L.A.” and “Drop a Gem on ‘Em.” He squabbled with Jay Z, who put an embarrassing photo of him on screen at Hot 97’s Summer Jam in 2001. Mobb Deep had friction with 50 Cent, but later signed to his G-Unit Records. Late in Prodigy’s career, he had a public falling-out with Havoc, though the two reconciled and continued to tour and record together.
Prodigy is survived by his wife, Ikesha Dudley; a son, T’Shaka; a daughter, Fahtasia; a brother, Greg; a stepdaughter, Kiejzonna Dudley; and a step-granddaughter, Brooklyn Harris.
Prodigy lived a bumpy and sometimes pugnacious life, including some time served in prison. He rendered his story in vivid detail in “My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy” (written with Laura Checkoway), published in 2011, which is full of frank and sometimes unexpectedly lighthearted storytelling about his career, his street scuffles, his health and his family.
He also co-wrote a novella and a cookbook and, perhaps most memorably, a 2008 blog post in which he listed, in detail, the number of trends he believed he had been responsible for starting, concluding with the indelible boast “How dare you question my trend setting, look at what I bring to the table.”
Poor health was a recurring issue for Prodigy, and at times he made it the subject of his music — most hauntingly on “You Can Never Feel My Pain,” a song that managed to both document his struggle, and be broodingly confrontational in the classic Mobb Deep way. In the main, though, he focused on himself:
My handicap took its toll on my sanity
My moms got me at the shrink at like 13
And doctors called the cops on me
’Cause I be throwing IV poles and they ignore me
I’ve gotta try to calm down and breathe
I can only hold it but for so long — put me to sleep.