Rappers are rarely as economical in conversation as they are in song. A good rap song thrills in its precision, its measured sentences overstuffed with images and ideas, delivered with a kind of gusto that you simply can't teach. But to hear a rapper ramble on about sundry topics, such as the time Lindsay Lohan nearly gave up the goods, or the survival instincts that will be required once the apocalypse comes: This is absorbing in a different way.
Albert "Prodigy" Johnson is best known for being one-half of Mobb Deep, Queens rap legends whose hellish classics still inspire fierce devotion. Which is to say that Prodigy is beloved and carefully studied by many, though he is not Jay-Z or Biggie or 2Pac, figures so adored that books and biopics, authorized and otherwise, were inevitable. Prodigy has enjoyed a steady run of gold records, but he's hardly in the strata of Keith Richards or Patti Smith, who've taken sabbaticals longer than Mobb Deep's classic stretch in the mid-1990s. Johnson thus makes for an unlikely memoirist, but his recently released My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep's Prodigy, which he mapped out while in prison for a gun possession charge, is a surprising triumph, both as an archive of 1990s New York hip-hop folk tales and for its stirring sketches of a man who, on many occasions, could have made his life a lot easier on himself. The best way to experience Johnson's epic, if meandering, journey: his audio book, which is among the most riveting recordings any rapper will release this year, or any year.
Over the course of seven albums, Johnson and his partner, Kejuan "Havoc" Muchita, perfected a style that was the very definition of gutter. Their songs oozed with desperation; they felt dank, fantastical, and consumed with a maddening paranoia—blame weed or the debilitating fevers and pain of Prodigy's sickle cell anemia for that. My Infamous Life, like Prodigy's music, fixes on the bruising minutiae of life in and around Queensbridge Houses. But where Mobb Deep's music was cold, heartless, and in-control, Prodigy's story allows for despair, defeat, and wandering reflection. Turning points in his career occupy mere minutes of the audio book, while a careful description of his high-school cafeteria or the history of his grandmother's legendary Queens dance studio unspool at a contemplative pace. Instead of infamy, there is life.
There is a faint stiffness to Prodigy's reading, as he tries to sound casual reciting the book's lines. But that stiffness occasionally gives way to a stirring earnestness, when, for example, he describes his grandmother's fried chicken wings as "the best in black history." He can seem bemused by his own life story, all the fights he escaped unscathed and the various cases he's dodged along the way. Even though you're not entirely sure he wrote all of these words himself—journalist Laura Checkoway is credited as a contributor—you begin to notice shifts in tone and emphasis over the course of the book, and it's clear which moments Johnson still feels. He'll end a gripping story about a Queensbridge melee with an awestruck "Wow," or seethe as he soldiers through passages concerning archenemy Jay-Z, who many believe derailed Mobb Deep's career by circulating a cred-killing photo of a prepubescent Prodigy preening at his grandmother's dance studio. When Prodigy catches word that fellow Queens native Nas has been dissing him around the neighborhood, he tries to take it in stride. His voice, though, betrays a quiver of disappointment that his loyalty to Nas has been in vain.
My Infamous Life is most compelling in its descriptions of Prodigy's younger years, before he begins to comprehend fame or learn the dimensions of cruelty. It's not just the innocent sense of discovery that is so winning; it's his refusal to cloud his childhood memories with weary, retrospective profundities or latter-day judgment. Even when it is clear that someone is going to disappoint or take advantage of him, he stays in the moment, coming off as the trusting, prideful kid he no doubt was. His great-great grandfather founded Morehouse College, his grandfather and uncle were famous jazz musicians, and his mother briefly sang in the Crystals. He grew up in an artistic household, where it was not uncommon for stars like Diana Ross or, memorably, Emmanuel Lewis of the television show Webster, to visit. "Yo Webster's coming to my house!" Johnson exclaims, conjuring the excitement of his younger self. After Lewis demonstrates some fancy footwork—"Oh shit! Webster can breakdance!"—Johnson needles him about his weird friendship with Michael Jackson.
These are the details you notice when your world is still small and manageable: the "goldmine of dimes"—pretty girls—on the first day of high school, discovering the new lands of Astoria's Steinway Street, preparing for a brawl by punching mom's couch pillows. But his world will eventually change, as crack colonizes his streets and his father's behavior grows increasingly erratic.
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.