Prodigy's 2007 album Return of the Mac was a leftfield triumph, the work of a rapper everyone had counted out reconnecting with everything that was great about him in the first place. As half of the bloody-minded Queensbridge duo Mobb Deep, Prodigy had come off a losing streak at least a half-decade long. He'd been dissed by Jay-Z, signed to G-Unit and released a flop of an attempted comeback, and saw crossover attempt after crossover attempt go nowhere. But with Return of the Mac, he and producer Alchemist dove into their stashes of 1970s blaxploitation-flick soundtracks and came up with a stark and grimy revivalist movie, a cinematic fever-dream memory of the old, gritty New York. In a bad year for rap, it was a cause for celebration.
It'd be great to say that Return of the Mac triggered a creative revitalization in Prodigy, but the past year has seen the man's life devolve into chaos, which positively bleeds through H.N.I.C. Pt. 2. Return of the Mac was originally intended as a mixtape teaser for H.N.I.C. Pt. 2, P's long-awaited sequel to his 2000 solo debut. By the time he got around to recording that sequel, though, Prodigy was staring down a three-and-a-half year prison sentence for gun possession, a term he's since started. Before Prodigy began serving his time, though, he reportedly recorded scratchy YouTube videos for every song on the album, signed a record deal with the translation-tech startup Voxonic, and started writing cryptically self-aggrandizing and weirdly addictive all-caps blog entries. (From his list of trends that he started: "#5 HOW I FOLD MY BANDANA," "#9 SAMPLING MUSIC FROM THE MOVIE SCARFACE,,,,,NOBODY DID IT BEFORE ME..NOT THE MUSIC").
H.N.I.C. Pt. 2 isn't like Beanie Sigel's The B.Coming, another album made by a rapper about to start a prison term. The B.Coming was a bitter lament, a recording of someone taking stock of his life and dwelling on his mistakes. By contrast, H.N.I.C. Pt. 2 finds Prodigy tangled in confusion, sounding like he's rapping through a haze of self-prescribed medication. As a rapper, P's never sounded more detached. He mutters out of the side of his mouth, barely noticing the beat. Nearly half the time, his words don't even come close to rhyming, and we get a lot of couplets like this: "Don't be mad at me, be mad at yourself/ For being so garbage you need to be killed." Most of his lyrics are either violent threats or conspiracy theories, but the threats have lost the vivid specificity of the vintage Infamous-era Mobb days and the theories usually straight-up don't make sense: "They lit the Pentagon on fire/ That's lighting a pentagram on fire." He contradicts himself all the time, saying on the first song that money and jewelry don't matter and then threatening to break your cheekbone with his platinum rings one track later. But there's still something absolutely magnetic about that voice: a weathered, craggy under-the-breath rasp. And there's something deeply poignant in the way he uses it on this album. It's like the tumult of his life has him so distracted and beat down that his words naturally come out all punch-drunk and half-hearted. In that way, H.N.I.C. Pt. 2 makes for a much more complete and visceral portrait of an incarcerated man than the most precise and technically sound record could possibly manage.
Musically, H.N.I.C. Pt. 2 grants P's travails an epic dignity. Alchemist is on board again; he and Brooklyn's Sid Roams (two dudes, weirdly) produce the bulk of the album. But instead of the washed-out soul-samples of Return of the Mac, Alchemist and Sid Roams favor spare, eerie drums and streaky, evocative John Carpenter synths, almost giving a restrained East Coast boom-bap answer to the gothic horror-movie bounce of DJ Paul and Juicy J. Sometimes they distress Prodigy's voice, running it through filters so he sounds like he's rapping over a bad phone connection. And we get a few cameos from Mobb associates like the competently heated Big Noyd and the terrifyingly guttural RBX clone Big Twins (one dude, weirdly). Prodigy sounds absolutely at home in all this, his haunted husk sinking easily into these tracks and playing off his guests with grim authority. The Prodigy of H.N.I.C Pt. 2 isn't depressed; he's as defiant and strange as always. He'll be OK.
-Tom Breihan, April 24, 2008