This week has been an interesting one for hip hop, especially those of you who are fans of free shit. Aside from the usual wide selection of giveaway tracks from artists you've never heard of and never will hear from again, there were two albums that hit the Interweb that the rappers involved don't expect any sort of compensation for. Both the 1990s and the current school of thought were represented: younger listeners will probably gravitate toward Covert Coup, the collaborative effort between producer The Alchemist and weed rap enthusiast Curren$y, which I might have given more of a fuck about had I actually enjoyed Pilot Talk II. Predictably enough, though, I going to run with the guy who has been an active part of our chosen genre since the early 1990s: Prodigy (of Mobb Deep), who was recently released from prison after serving a three-year bid, has hooked up with the good folks at Complex to bring you two his first album since he tasted freedom, The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP.
Now, I'm fully aware that I've given Albert Johnson a ton of shit on this very blog, specifically referring to his rapid loss of lyrical talent that became evident to the rest of the world after Mobb Deep's fourth effort, Murda Musik. His solo career has been so unappealing to me that I haven't even bothered to review the two albums he released before he was locked up (although they are still in the pile I keep talking about); Mobb Deep's signing with Curtis Jackson's G-Unit Records was essentially the nail in the proverbial coffin.
However, the tide could possibly be turning on my general indifference to the Mobb. For starters, they are no longer signed with Curtis: even though there is always the chance that Havoc and Prodigy may work with him again in the future, the odds are pretty good that they won't re-up with his label, since G-Unit Records no longer wields any sort of influence with parent company Interscope Records after 50's lack of sales. Havoc has also proven himself to be a bit of a rhyme animal, tearing up the few tracks that he appeared on during P's incarceration: where Prodigy's lyrical ability has diminished, Hav seems to have picked up the slack (maybe he enrolled in an online course or something). But the real reason why Mobb Deep may be falling back into favor is because the first thing the duo did once P was sprung from the clink was record a song, "Dog Shit", with production by old family friend The Alchemist and a guest appearance from Nas, whom P had recently reconciled with (sure, Nas never actually collaborated with them in the studio, but in the year 2011, you take what you can get). My opinion of the track is mixed: it doesn't captivate me as much as the duo's earlier work has. But a lot of other influential people seem to think the song is the tits, so things are looking up for the Mobb.
The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP features seven tracks (one of which is a bonus) framed within sound bites taken from the film Hoodlum, in which mob boss Bumpy Johnson was portrayed by Laurence Fishburne. Production comes primarily from production duo Sid Roams, whom he has worked with in the past, although The Alchemist (who is having a good week, what with Covert Coup and all, which Prodigy even guest-stars on himself, so even Curren$y must be a fan of the Mobb's older work) and some guy named King Benny also pop up behind the boards. Havoc provides the lone guest appearance, leaving cohorts Big Noyd and the Infamous Mobb scrambling for guest slots on the eventual Mobb Deep comeback tour. Lord knows if the solo Prodigy will have changed enough to interest the casual hip hop head again, but given his pedigree (and the fact that he does have two indisputable classic albums under his belt), I figure he's worth a shot.
Besides, it's short.
1. THE ONE & ONLY
After an extended sound bite from Hoodlum, Prodigy finally steps in and spits some verses to some typically dull Alchemist production (borrowed from his own work on the Big Twins/Krondon collaboration "Smart N---z"). The artist formerly known as Cellblock P's return to this here rap shit may have had more of an impact had he not already reunited with Havoc to release "Dog Shit", Mobb Deep's collaboration with Nas that has the blogs losing their shit right now. I'm tempted to give Prodigy a pass on this opener, since his slow, apathetic flow could be blamed on Al Maman's uninteresting instrumental (he couldn't even come up with a fresh one for his boy's return to the game?), but I ultimately can't: our host for the evening already sounds bored, and his choice in bars seems to mimic how the man sounded prior to his stint in the clink. Hopefully "The One & Only" (and its fucking terrible hook) isn't representative of the rest of this project.
2. GO OFF
Apparently I missed the part where producer Sid Roams became a member of the three- (four-?) headed dragon that Prodigy turns to for his beats (the other two belonging to The Alchemist and Havoc, respectively): they have scored the majority of the instrumental slots on The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP. The music isn't that bad, actually: it sounds like a more subdued take on anything from Murda Musik, and P, who believes he is as underrated as Don Cheadle (who isn't actually underrated: he's a great actor, but he gets enough work for me to comfortably say that he is rated properly just the way he is), seems at ease with the static-filled beat, so even though some of his claims (such as how "Mobb Deep fell off...the bottom and [we] landed on top") come across as just plain goofy, "Go Off" will go down in the history books as a triumphant return for Prodigy, as this is the closest he has sounded to being a relevant rapper in quite some time. Good for him.
3. BLACK DEVIL
Okay, so maybe not everything Sid Roams touch is a winner, but the beat is almost an innocent bystander to P's lyrics on here, which approach the most serious work the man has ever done. His message of racial equality, hidden in plain sight within a seemingly racist tirade, is interesting because of the journey he takes the listener on before he finally reveals just what the hell this track is about. I'm intrigued by the idea that Prodigy has seemingly changed up his worldview simply because the only person to befriend him while he was behind bars was some anonymous white guy: whether this is a true statement or not, it proves that our host may have found the lyrical depth he had previously misplaced in between Murda Musik and Infamy.
4. TWILIGHT (FEAT. HAVOC)
Although the book series was already jumping off the shelves, the first film in the Twilight saga hasn't yet hit theaters by the time Prodigy was sentenced, so this song is an attempt to cash-in on a popular trend. Or at least it could be, had he been rhyming about all of the vampires around his way, with their pale-white skin that sparkles like diamonds in the sun, their love of emo music, and whatever the fuck else Stephanie Meyer has used to completely destroy the vampire mythos. Anyway, P's lyrics don't amount to much on here, but he sounds pretty good over this Sid Roams production, and his rhyme partner Havoc, making his lone appearance on The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP (could he not be bothered to give his boy an instrumental?), sounds like he's been fasting ever since P was locked up in the first place, since he comes across as starving. This isn't officially a Mobb Deep song, but it might as well be, since it sounds so much better than the entirety of Blood Money.
5. FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY
For a change, The Alchemist actually brings a good beat to the table; unfortunately for him, Albert uses "For One Night Only" as an excuse to convince chicks to leave their boyfriends at home and join him for a night on the town that will almost certainly include both fucking and the brushing of teeth (proper dental hygiene is very important). P even decided that this would be a good time to introduce his interpretation on the speed-rap, thoroughly embarrassing himself during the first set of bars before the light bulb turns on above his head, after which he switches back to normal (for the most part). Prodigy doesn't technically sound awful on here, but his performance was still fairly bad, although I completely understand that he would be obsessed with sex after getting out of the bing, so I can't fault him entirely: it's just not what Mobb Deep fans want to actually hear. But at least Al's beat was really good: it even incorporates some sinister elements that I didn't fully catch until P stopped rhyming, which elevated it tremendously in my book.
I have no idea who the fuck King Benny is supposed to be, and I have no information as to whether a lower-ranked member of the monarchy might have done a better job with producing "Stronger", but here we are. A lazy vocal sample (taken from Nina Simone's "Four Women") is somehow supposed to support the bulk of Cellblock P's lyrics, but the song trips over itself multiple times, the clumsy bastard. So yeah, this shit was boring.
The following is included on The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP as a bonus track.
7. TOLD Y'ALL
Considering the fact that the Hoodlum sound bites continue through to this track, I have no clue why it was labeled as a bonus: it seems to fit in with the rest of the program, aside from the Sid Roams beat, which sounds too modern-day-bullshittish for Prodigy to sound even remotely average. The use of a Jay-Z vocal sample is kind of funny, considering the history those two share, but there isn't anything on "Told Y'all" that leads the listener to believe that Albert Johnson will continue to rock mics for years to come. Which is sad, as the opposite of my last sentence is what Prodigy is trying to convey. Sigh.
SHOULD YOU TRACK IT DOWN? Nah. Prodigy's The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP isn't technically awful, but our host's musical inclinations haven't changed much from the time period before he was locked up, and as a result, this project sounds instantly dated. The instrumentals selected for the album are mostly forgettable, save for a couple, and a good majority of Prodigy's lyrics are more miss than hit. When P finds something to actually talk about, he sounds as interesting as he did back in the mid-1990s, but unfortunately, prison hasn't really added to his backlog of source material as much as I would have liked. I'll still check out a new Mobb Deep album, and I may get to the other P solo projects sooner rather than later, but for the most part, I think that our host needs Havoc around as a counterbalance: without his input, Prodigy isn't able to rein in his impulses, which, apparently, led to this quick attempt to keep his name on the blogs. This was a disappointment, but as I had zero expectations going into it, I can only say that I'm thankful that it didn't waste that much of my time.
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