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Amid the burgeoning mid-'90s hardcore rap scene, Queensbridge duo Mobb Deep towered above their peers, instantly canonized for their influential, trendsetting The Infamous album. The duo, comprised of Prodigy and Havoc, initially began as just another hardcore rap act, a role the two youths typecast themselves as on their rudimentary debut album, Juvenile Hell (1993), and their breakthrough album, The Infamous (1995). The startling latter became a touchstone album among the hardcore rap community, driven by the song "Shook Ones, Pt. 2," a time-tested anthem. Mobb Deep became widely known from coast to coast for their hellish lyrical depiction of New York street life in Queensbridge, the rough housing project the duo called home. Mobb Deep's production style also became widely known, driven by haunting melodies and hard-hitting beats, the bleak aural equivalent of the duo's sullen rhymes. By the end of the decade, Mobb Deep's Murda Muzik debuted at number three on the Billboard album chart, exemplifying exactly how far the duo had come without compromising their harsh approach.
Mutually residing in Queens and sharing a passion for hip-hop, Mobb Deep members Prodigy and Havoc originally met while both attending the prestigious Graphic Arts High School in Manhattan. Still in their late teens, the duo released their debut album, Juvenile Hell, in 1993 on the 4th & Broadway label. Though the album wasn't that successful from either a financial or critical standpoint, it did serve as a fitting platform for the duo to launch their career. Not only did Mobb Deep produce their own beats; they also crafted their own style of beat-making: a street-smart poetic approach centering on the surrounding ghetto lifestyle. Prodigy and Havoc's brutally honest reality rapping and complementary melancholy beats landed them a deal in 1995 with the up-and-coming Loud label, which released The Infamous, Mobb Deep's breakthrough album.
The Infamous became a touchstone for mid-'90s East Coast hardcore rap beside such similar classics as Reasonable Doubt, Enter the Wu-Tang, and Ready to Die. Partially propelled to awareness by fellow Queensbridge rapper Nas, who lyrically took a similar approach on his championed Illmatic album in 1994, and partially by a successful single, "Shook Ones, Pt. 2," Mobb Deep suddenly found themselves with a huge cult following. A year later, Prodigy and Havoc released Hell on Earth (1996); debuting at number six on the Billboard album chart, the album found the duo further realizing their approach, dropping both evocative beats and cinematic rhymes that communicated the dark side of New York's urban landscape. And thanks to a grim video for "Hell on Earth (Front Lines)" and theatrical Scarface-like photos inside the CD booklet picturing the duo with guns and a mound of cocaine, Mobb Deep had created an elaborate image for themselves that took hardcore gangsta rap to a new level. It was then no surprise when fans heavily bootlegged Mobb Deep's successive release, Murda Muzik, while it was still in its demo stage.
Months after the bootlegs first leaked and after several pushed-back street dates, Murda Muzik finally dropped in early 1999. It debuted at number three on Billboard and quickly went platinum on the strength of "Quiet Storm," a song epitomizing the signature Mobb Deep style. In late 2000, Prodigy finally released his long-rumored solo album, H.N.I.C., which saw the more outspoken member of the group collaborating with outside producers such as Alchemist and Rockwilder on tracks similar to the trademark Mobb Deep style. On H.N.I.C. and later in an interview with The Source, Prodigy referenced his bout with illness during the time following Murda Muzik. During this same time, Jay-Z spoke out against Mobb Deep, and Prodigy in particular. The street-credibility challenging incident led to some publicity for Mobb Deep, who were then unwillingly thrown into the spotlight with New York's biggest rappers at the time, Jay-Z and Nas.
Mobb Deep overcame its hurdles with the release of Infamy at the tail end of 2001. The duo didn't challenge Jay-Z as Nas had. Instead, Mobb Deep veered notably toward pop-rap for the first time in their career, bringing in outside producers and vocalists. The crossover success of "Hey Luv (Anything)" resulted, upsetting some longtime fans who wanted to see the duo remain strictly hardcore. Yet for every fan who jumped ship, two climbed aboard, shuffling the composition of Mobb Deep's audience a bit. The duo was unfazed, however. Prodigy in particular noted that his bout with illness and with Jay-Z had changed his outlook.
A CD of new tracks -- with Havoc doing most of the vocals -- and a CD of remixes and collaborations were released together as Free Agents: The Murda Mix Tape in 2003. The label was Landspeed and the cover declared the group "free agents," addressing the group's split with Loud and search for a new label. They found it in Jive, who released the entirely new Amerikaz Nightmare in 2004. Two years later, they signed to 50 Cent's G-Unit boutique label and released the Top Ten hit Blood Money. ~ Jason Birchmeier, All Music Guide
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