It’s a beautiful day in the ‘hood, neighbor. A bright midsummer sun shines above New York’s Queensbridge Housing Projects. Just inside the entrance, tall maple trees lend shade to a lush green lawn and circular beds of pink and purple flowers. A little girl in pigtails laughs as she bounces a baseball on the sidewalk with her brother.
Seeing Albert “Prodigy” Johnson make his way to his gray SUV, though, you’d think it was overcast, even raining. One half of the platinum-selling rap duo Mobb Deep, Prodigy wears black shorts, a T-shirt heralding his soon-to-be-released solo debut, H.N.I.C., and, as just about always, a sullen expression.
He moves slowly, breathes heavy, and speaks in a voice that suggests long years of Marlboro and Hennessy. Prodigy, 26, has the world-weary demeanor of an octogenarian bluesman who has outlived all his friends.
Prodigy’s paternal grandfather, actually, is the late Budd Johnson, a saxophone giant who cut records with Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughn back in the day. Prodigy’s paternal grandmother, Bernice Johnson, founded a successful dance school in her Jamaica, Queens backyard. “She was the H.N.I.C.,” Prodigy says emphatically. “Everybody called my grandmother the Head N***a In Charge.” During the ’60s, his mother, Fatima Gyeye, sang with the hit R&B girl group the Crystals (“Da Doo Ron Ron”), while his father Bud Johnson Jr., fronted a less renowned outfit called the Chanters. “Music is definitely in his blood,” says Havoc, Prodigy’s Queensbridge-native partner in Mobb, who produced two tracks on H.N.I.C. “He just took that and applied it to our generation’s music: rap.”
By the mid ’70s, Prodigy’s nuclear family was living on welfare in Queen’s Lefrak City apartment complex. His father was a computer programmer for IBM in the ’80s, but his demons got the best of him.
“My pops did a lot of stupid sh*t, man” Prodigy says with a wistful smile. “One time the n***a took me to rob a jewelry store. I was like, 5. He didn’t give a f**k, though. He was like, ‘This is my son. He can see everything I do.’ I love him for that. Even though it might not be right, so what? That was my pops!”
“He passed away four years ago,” Prodigy continues. “He was a dope addict. He died from AIDS—sharing needles and sh*t.”
Sadly, Prodigy has his own intimate relationship with hypodermic needles. He was born with sickle-cell anemia, a chronic blood disease found primarily in people of African descent. Often fatal during childhood, it causes sporadic episodes of fever and joint and abdominal pain. Transfusions and intravenous analgesics are standard treatment.
“The sickle-cell got me where doctors said I couldn’t play sports, I couldn’t overexert myself…I been going to the hospital since I was born, about 10 times a year, for about a week or two each time. I don’t know, man, some psychological sh*t goes down. I be all doped up for weeks. Morphine, Demerol—a whole bunch of drugs.”
Many lyrics from Mobb Deep’s albums were written while Prodigy lay in a hospital bed under the influence of those opiates. For the first time in his career, though, Prodigy directly addresses his condition on H.N.I.C.’s “You Can Never Feel My Pain.”
“Tupac, Ja Rule—a whole bunch of people talk about pain,” says Prodigy. “And Tupac, he even said some sh*t about my sickle-cell [on his song ‘Hit ‘Em Up’], so that inspired me to make a real song to show n***as what pain is.”
For the most part, H.N.I.C. follows the same formula that has won Mobb Deep critical accolades and ever-increasing sales numbers since 1995’s The Infamous: vivid thug tales of gunplay and drug sales. Scare-you-straight battle raps. Paeans to the dead. But somehow Prodigy’s survivor stories attain a level of beauty all their own.
“The music is beautiful because it’s a perfect painting of the lifestyle that we live. And the lifestyle of millions of other people in the ghettos. N***as that’s f**ked up, they consider that sh*t beauty. They like, ‘Yo, that’s my life. He’s talking about my life.’ Beauty ain’t always a little cute colored flower. Beauty is anything where people be like, ‘Damn…‘”