The Mobb Deep story is really the story of one song. In 1994, the duo released “Shook Ones, Pt. 2”, quite possibly the bleakest track in the history of rap. If Havoc and Prodigy of Mobb Deep had died in 1995, they could have rested in peace knowing their ode to waiting to get shot at on a deserted block in Queens in the middle of the night was a classic. What they could not have known was that the track would be New York’s backbone for almost five years. While other rappers either took philosophical approaches to their lives of crime, or brought lyrical finesse that made their dirt poetic, “Shook Ones, Pt. 2” was entirely transparent. No celebration of the spoils of war, no breaks to kick it to the honies. At a time when New York was looking fearfully at a growing movement in the west, fueled by ruthless violence and nihilism, the east was looking a little bit soft. But nobody could ever accuse Mobb Deep of being soft, as they were apparently too focused on keeping it real to rap about anything they couldn’t do while standing on the block.
Life of the Infamous tells the story of Mobb Deep through their 16 videos, incidentially narrating the authenticity debate in New York rap as Mobb Deep get further and further from Queensbridge. Disregarding the stylistic false start Juvenile Hell, the duo basically ate off “Shook Ones” for their first two albums (The Infamous and Hell On Earth), and the early videos reflect that. Very little happens outside of Havoc and Prodigy looking tense with their crew behind them. It’s possible they end up in an apocolyptic future by the end of “Hell On Earth”, but besides the purple sky and disembodied Statue of Liberty, it pretty much looks like Queensbridge in the rest of the videos. But “G.O.D. pt. III” is a departure, an attempt to stay current. The locale changes to the balcony of what might be a church, and they swap their drab, sloppy bandanas and hoodies for bright active-wear. Various Wu-Tang members replace the anonymous QB mob, left behind as the pair tried to revamp their image from neighborhood crooks to high rollers.
The videos only get shinier from there, as New York descended into what might be called the shiny suit era. With Jay-Z and Puffy in charge, New York rap was no longer small-time; the kingpins were running shit. “Shook Ones” was an anthem for petty criminals, but the scene no longer aimed for the proletariat. Even with all their success, Mobb Deep had to hustle to keep up. Even though the big-budget heist in 1999’s “Quiet Storm” is one of the best clips on the disc (and definately one of the least dull), it’s a desperate act. When they ape Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin” video at a South American coke mansion for “It’s Mine” with Nas, it’s just wrong. And the duo were out of their element surrounded by video hoes in the red-tinted “Quiet Storm” remix with Lil Kim.
Life closes with New York teetering on the edge of relevance. With the south dominating rap, Mobb Deep got grimier and the videos got better. Two of the clips from 2001’s Infamy are reasonably polished, but find Hav and P in packed clubs and running drugs south of the border, no longer surrounded by beautiful people. Videos from 2004’s Amerikaz Nightmare follow Mobb Deep to a clandestine club filled with beautiful women, but the spot is weird and black-lit. It’s not supposed to feel like an everyday event.
Mobb Deep are still around, last seen running with 50 Cent and G-Unit, and their evolution continues. As they left the desolate projects behind them, the music never slipped as much as the videos. But even though the early clips are all kind of boring, the bright, heavily mastered later videos lose the realness which made Mobb Deep famous in the first place. Life of the Infamous follows the transition. Though video anthologies like Life are usually only for fans, this disc is interesting as a historical study.