The Infamous (25th Anniversary Expanded Edition)
When gangsta rap first bloomed under Schoolly D, Ice-T, N.W.A., and others, it often painted street life in a heroic, triumphant light. The protagonists were larger than life, mythical, and had the women, luxury trappings, and over-the-top stories to prove it; they were victors with spoils.
Mobb Deep’s 1995 classic, The Infamous, shattered those fantasies. Throughout the album, released when Prodigy and Havoc were just 20 years old, the pair don’t come off like cinematic heroes; they seem like traumatized teens just trying to survive in Queensbridge—America’s largest housing project, right over the bridge from Manhattan’s old-money Upper East Side. The biggest single from Mobb’s first album, 1993’s largely forgotten Juvenile Hell, was the lighthearted sex jam “Hit It From the Back.” In contrast, on the chillingly paranoid Infamous standout “Trife Life,” Prodigy’s potential hookup with an old fling in Brooklyn means bringing “gats for precaution” and five friends for “manpower” in case it’s a setup. (He never even meets the girl; he and his crew end up fleeing because they saw a tinted-window car and couldn’t tell if it was “the enemy.”) A year earlier, Mobb’s Queensbridge compatriot Nas dropped the instant classic Illmatic, which found poetry and cinematic grace in the neighborhood’s troubles; The Infamous did away with that pretense.
Mobb’s bleak vision crystallizes perfectly on first single “Shook Ones, Pt. II.” “Without the song…I don't know where I would be,” Havoc told Apple Music in a 2020 interview celebrating the album’s 25th anniversary. Havoc, who produced the bulk of the album in between some assists from mentor Q-Tip, slows down and distorts a Herbie Hancock piano snippet (1969’s “Jessica”) beyond recognition until it sounds like an out-of-tune horror movie guitar; Prodigy—who suffered from sickle cell anemia and died from complications in 2017—promising posers he’d “rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone” remains one of the most graphic, scarily specific rap lines committed to tape. “He was very vivid in telling his side of the story,” Havoc told Apple Music. “He was a larger-than-life figure.”
The song redefined the group’s trajectory and thrust them to the forefront of a rejuvenated New York rap scene that emphasized gritty street realism. Nas and Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon and Ghostface, fresh off their own breakout releases, officially welcomed Mobb to the city’s new pantheon by delivering some of their best-ever bars on “Right Back at You” and “Eye for a Eye (Your Beef Is Mines)”—cold-blooded anthems about vengeance, to-the-end loyalty, and making ruthless choices just to survive. “When you think of New York albums, you have to mention The Infamous—it was like the Olympics,” Raekwon told Apple Music about the album’s sessions. “‘You got to be ready—don’t fuck up!’ I just felt like I just had to just give them [something] good. Once they said, ‘Yo, solid,’ that's when I knew I passed the exam.”
“I felt like I was going to school—it was a resurgence of New York,” Havoc added. “It was the beginning of a new era.”
The Infamous’ nihilistic violence doesn’t let up until Q-Tip’s bouncy drum-and-saxophone loop opens up “Drink Away the Pain”; it seems like the album’s first moment of levity until you realize it’s an ode to alcohol's palliative abilities. “When you listen to it, listen to it at first and enjoy,” Tip told Apple Music of the album. “Then think about it from the perspective of a young black man who's still a teenager who's forced to step into the shoes of manhood in a wild environment to be able to just survive and provide for his young black family. [If] it’s either going to be me or you, if I'm drawing first and you draw last, guess what? I win.”