Prodigy was born Albert Johnson on Nov. 2, 1974, in Hempstead, N.Y., on Long Island, to Budd Johnson Jr. and Fatima Frances Johnson. His family was a musical one: His mother was a member of the famous girl group the Crystals in its later years, and his grandfather, Budd Johnson, was a well-regarded jazz saxophonist.
After a brief spell rapping under the name Lord-T (The Golden Child), Prodigy teamed up with the rapper and producer Havoc in his first year of high school. They initially performed together as Poetical Prophets, and they were selected for the Source magazineâs influential âUnsigned Hypeâ column. They soon changed their name to Mobb Deep, and in 1993 they released their first album, âJuvenile Hell.â
From the beginning, Prodigy was arrestingly lucid. On âShook Ones (Part II),â the first single from âThe Infamousâ â one of hip-hopâs most influential albums â he delivered vicious, dispassionate threats in concise, graceful form:
Donât make me have to call your name out
Your crew is featherweight; my gunshotsâll make you levitate
Iâm only 19, but my mind is old
And when the things get for real, my warm heart turns cold.
The rest of the album was filled with bracing storytelling rap on songs like âCradle to the Graveâ and âUp North Trip.â This was hip-hopâs toughest era, and few were more convincing â or more distinguished â than Prodigy, who rapped with what sounded like earned iciness.
He remained in peak form over the duoâs next two albums and on his solo debut, âH.N.I.C.,â released in 2000. Sometimes he would render a horrific scene with nimble syllables: âGet chopped up, grade-A meat, something delicious/And laced back up, two Gâs worth of stitches.â And sometimes he would slip into lamentation: âThe streets raised me crazy, now Iâm immune to it/So when they start shooting, we donât stop the music.â
Prodigy was also embroiled in some of hip-hopâs most memorable beefs. He took on 2Pac on âL.A., L.A.â and âDrop a Gem on âEm.â He squabbled with Jay Z, who put an embarrassing photo of him on screen at Hot 97âs Summer Jam in 2001. Mobb Deep had friction with 50 Cent, but later signed to his G-Unit Records. Late in Prodigyâs career, he had a public falling-out with Havoc, though the two reconciled and continued to tour and record together.
Prodigy is survived by his wife, Ikesha Dudley; a son, TâShaka; a daughter, Fahtasia; a brother, Greg; a stepdaughter, Kiejzonna Dudley; and a step-granddaughter, Brooklyn Harris.
Prodigy lived a bumpy and sometimes pugnacious life, including some time served in prison. He rendered his story in vivid detail in âMy Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deepâs Prodigyâ (written with Laura Checkoway), published in 2011, which is full of frank and sometimes unexpectedly lighthearted storytelling about his career, his street scuffles, his health and his family.
He also co-wrote a novella and a cookbook and, perhaps most memorably, a 2008 blog post in which he listed, in detail, the number of trends he believed he had been responsible for starting, concluding with the indelible boast âHow dare you question my trend setting, look at what I bring to the table.â
Poor health was a recurring issue for Prodigy, and at times he made it the subject of his music â most hauntingly on âYou Can Never Feel My Pain,â a song that managed to both document his struggle, and be broodingly confrontational in the classic Mobb Deep way. In the main, though, he focused the toll the disease took on himself:
My handicap took its toll on my sanity
My moms got me at the shrink at like 13
And doctors called the cops on me
âCause I be throwing IV poles and they ignore me
Iâve gotta try to calm down and breathe
I can only hold it but for so long â put me to sleep