My Infamous Life
The audiobook of Prodigy's memoir might be the best rap album of the year.
Memoirs tend to be reverse-engineered to explain the present, the past serving as the storm before the calm. Crisis begets reflection, catastrophe is avoided or overcome, the possibility for redemption emerges. For a while, Prodigy follows this script. But as Johnson grows older—as he continues to confuse each new, grimy horizon of his life as the moment he is to become a man—My Infamous Life refuses order. It meanders, just as life meanders. He sells drugs and meets girls. He lives in fear of the sudden, seizing pain and fevers of sickle-cell anemia. He fights a lot. He can't possibly need all the guns he buys. There's no explanation for his behavior, and no lessons are fully learned. He and Havoc work incredibly hard, they make music that comes to define other people's lives, and yet they still worry about things like paying the rent. As you drift through Prodigy's entrancing thirteen-hour account of his t30-odd years, you begin to anticipate the choices he is going to make. After a while, it becomes agonizing, as though the past four hours you have spent surviving the late-1990s has been for naught.
It's strange for a rapper capable of lean feats of language like "Survival of the Fittest" or "Quiet Storm" to talk so candidly for so long. Reserved and paranoid on record, Prodigy's frequent moments of chattiness or introspection feel cathartic. But there are notable absences. Johnson, so forthcoming elsewhere, skims past lost fistfights and the time he allegedly got his jewels snatched. Others have contested his version of crew politics, and who really knows if he really had a chance with Mary J. Blige. But to hear him describe his grandmother's business acumen or express his devotion to his wife, Kiki, (despite the occasional misstep) or admit to being deeply insecure about his teeth: This is the kind of vulnerability that is fearless, especially within hip-hop.
There is a moment about four hours into My Infamous Life when Johnson finds himself in the early hours of morning, zigzagging down the expressway, flying high on angel dust, Raekwon's "Glaciers of Ice" rattling through "Lil Nigga," his beat-up old car. It sounds glorious, and he nearly dies. This is another version of fearlessness—but it is in the service of a youthful stupidity, and Johnson's dull recitation communicates a kind of shame. It would have made a good line in a song, but here it reminds us that self-analysis does not always mean self-control. That some of the choices that comprise his life can't be explained only makes Johnson's story seem realer than most.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.