I prefer to blame the record industry for Mobb Deep's malformed career. Judging from the living proof of the duo's ability to whip out masterpiece albums, it is completely within the range of possibility for them to do it again. But they aren't doing it, and not for lack of trying. Maybe their sound is just too grim for OutKast status, but their new album Americaz Nighmare maintains their respectability, even if it isn't going to make them more popular. I think I may know what's holding them back from making another perfect album (here's a hint: Lil' Jon fans should not let their eyes touch the last paragraph of this review).
But first, let's talk about the positives. This is the closest the Mobb has come to diamond-perfection since their underprivileged masterpiece, Hell on Earth, in 1996. This is a good time to go deep again with the Mobb. It lacks that old album's consistency, but this is more successful at facing the same challenge they've faced since Havoc opened the studio to other producers with Murda Muzik, in order to increase the range of the Mobb Deep creative operations.
Mobb Deep fans have one requirement: Mobb Deep must scare the shit out of us. We bob our heads to the beat like victims of whiplash from kicks in the back. It's a kind of masochism that a lot of people get off on. "That's that ha-ard shit," rasps Havoc on "Dump" (more on "Dump" later), and that's how we like it.
Amerikaz Nighmare is all about "Flood the Block," probably one of the most purely evil Scarface-type nasty tracks that Mobb Deep has ever laid to wax. With its gritty guitar sample and busy-electronic helicopter blade-sounds, Havoc and Prodigy are at the mic with black adder cocaine venom. It's pure Mobb Deep, as intense as their hit with Big Noyd, "I Can't Get Enough Of It". As ever, the boys predict a grim future, and the sound of "Flood the Block" is where Mobb Deep predict best. The hail of the crowd or the hail of the bullets, the crimelife only ends in early death. The money is the prize and the killer, as Havoc says it:
"You know my story, you can feel me, you know how I get done, /
I'm bout the money, I been at it for a little while, / Never put the metal down, Hunger never satisfy, billion dollar Snicker bar, And once I settle down, pre-nup to the lucky broad."
Such a romantic young man is the ghetto cash fiend. It's Havoc's album in a lot of ways: lyrically he will not be bested here. Prodigy gets the solo record (he released H.N.I.C. to a peep of interest), but Havoc's the decks and brains of the ensemble when it comes to Amerikaz Nightmare. Compare a few lines from verses writ by Havoc to Prodigy in the G-Funk spook-out track featuring Nate Dogg, "Dump" (as in "dump" bullets on snitch-asses). Havoc goes:
"That's that hard shit, /
That hit a nigga up in his car shit, this war bitch, Somehow I feel we need more of the thing, Instinct to get that paper, know it's all in my vein, You rookies need to be toilet trained, You faggots shittin' everywhere that you eatin' / That's why the coroner came / You never know, when the tec'll blow, / Wet you and catch you off guard, / Niggaz know that I crept slow."
The last two lines are particularly great for their evocative language, but the play on the meanings of the song's title, and the whole verse is fairly impressive for what little it actually articulates. And then after Nate Dogg''s pretty awesome chorus (it's worth mentioning that the song kicks some pretty serious snitch-ass, and has a much better "crunk" vibe than the poo-based track produced by Lil' Jon later on in the album [more about that later]), Prodigy goes:
"Nigga I'll smack that smirk right off your face, /
You listen to jerk music, this is Mobb Deep, /
You ain't never seen or heard no shit like this, /
Until you purchase our CD, it's very worth it, / Don't confuse our album with that 'Mix Tape' shit, /
Those are scratch, basically our throwaway shit, / And nobody wrap the street like the Infamous clique, /
Slash Jive, now we got millions to work with, / And we Violators too, so you know we overdoin' it."
What? That sucks, man. That doesn't even start to rhyme until he rhymes "worth it" with "'Mix Tape' shit" and then with "throwaway shit," which really hardly counts as any kind of rhyming at all. Grant the man Prodigy some leeway since he is one of the most highly respected rappers who ever came up, but still: it's Havoc's album.
Mobb Deep's career is one of rap's greatest stories. When a critic dreams of his personal label that would reissue only the greatest records, he thinks about the stunning career of the Infamous Mobb. Their first album Juvenile Hell came out in 1993 and was largely ignored. People didn't sleep on this record: this record was stillborn. Eleven years later, it's as pickled as ever. For most people, Havoc and Prodigy's second album, The Infamous from 1995, was their first impression of the Mobb Deep steez. And what a grim fucking world it was. What kind of suicide-hole was this Queensbridge project that the boys wrote about with such conviction? And the production -- Havoc's production was chilly like the morgue, with shout-outs to Kiko and other mysterious underworld hoods. It was the dark, stark, harrowing stories narrowing in on the scaredest heartbeats of the inner-city streets. Mobb Deep was the dangerously low growl of two alley-dogs caught in a dead-end, facing imminent death.
It was the dead-eyed stare of innocence having seen too much, too fast. In a conservative music industry that thrives on filler, The Infamous and its masterpiece follow-up, Hell on Earth had none. Under the influence of DJ Premier and Kool G Rap, the early-nineties debuts of Notorious B.IG., the Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Jay-Z, AZ, and the Mobb Deep duo, New York was at the absolute peak of its creative power, writing the rough trade from the absolute bottom of society. And looking back on the New York discography ten years after the story began, Mobb Deep's albums add up to an incredible story.
So what's the problem with Mobb Deep in 2004? The answer can be found on the Kanye West track. The answer is every song not produced by Havoc. It's not even that West's production on "Throw Your Hands (In the Air)" is bad, it's that Mobb Deep produces Mobb Deep better than anyone. West's attempt to mate his sound with Havoc's is as subtle as The Alchemist's, but the result is still a weak version of what we really want: that 2AM Havoc drum crack, and more importantly, Havoc's ear.
The worst example of a guest producer on Amerikaz Nightmare is Lil' Jon's "Real Gangstaz". Lil' Jon is a commercial radio clown. Mobb Deep might as well have Howard Stern produce their music. Lil' Jon's idea of "crunk" is to turn on a slow beat and press his hands against a synthesizer. If hip-hop is about creativity flourishing under difficult circumstances, then Lil' Jon represents none of that. He represents mediocrity flourishing in Mobb money. Lil' Jon's crunk is nothing but the carburetor junk from the ass-end of OutKast's "Aquemini," and that "dump"'s got no business smelling up Mobb Deep's house. There hasn't been a toy producer this over-rated since MC Hammer. Remember the genie pants and the crabwalk and the "Super Freak" sample and what you can't touch? Wasn't it Lil' Jon, with his aluminum teeth and rubber-bands-for brains and fake 'dreads, didn't he produce that? I have a lot of respect for Mobb Deep repping the nonpartisan hood and letting an idiot like Lil' Jon ruin their album, for the sake of unity in hip-hop. But Lil' Jon is the worst thing to ever happen in hip-hop. I call for all-out sanction against Lil' Jon and his crunk machine. Let's put our usergroups together and put an end to Lil' Jon, for crimes against creativity.