The rapper Prodigy was recently released from the Mid-State Correctional Facility in New Jersey after serving three and a half years on an illegal gun possession charge. During his time inside, he took to blogging. The medium allowed Prodigy to share his views on an increasingly fanciful series of topics, including Jay-Z's alleged membership in the Illuminati, how Barack Obama isn't actually the first black American president, and the impending danger of a secret society that worships a giant demonic owl named Molech. These missives instigated a sharp positive change in Prodigy's image: He went from being typecast as a depressive thug rapper from the Queensbridge housing projects to a voluble hip-hop eccentric with a stash of rambling but wildly entertaining views.
With Prodigy's return to freedom on March 7 came the hope that he could convert these fantastical views into rhymes. One of his blog posts, for example, contended that "Napoleon Bonaparte was infamous for using cannons to blow the lips and nose off the Sphinx and other giant Egyptian monuments." That's the type of unhinged, absurdist statement that wouldn't sound out of place in a rap by Internet darling Lil B. There's potential there: Tapping into his esoteric online personality might give Prodigy a chance to expand his fan base beyond those who came on board during his mid-'90s peak with the group Mobb Deep.
Before any rejuvenation, though, Prodigy needed to overcome the demands of hip-hop mythology. Since 2Pac was released from the Clinton Correctional Facility in 1995 — after which he famously signed to Death Row Records, embarked on a prolific recording spree, took on a new-found Machiavellian persona, and reaped huge commercial benefits — fans have viewed rappers' time in prison not so much as punishment for crimes committed but as cocoonlike safe havens where they can ready their next releases and prepare to attack the world. Lil Wayne's recent shenanigans at Rikers Island underscored this sentiment. The revelations that he was busted with a contraband iPod and had been clogging his arteries with Doritos and Kool-Aid were reported as if they were simply jovial, newsy snippets of any standard pre-album promotional campaign. There's an expectation that a hip-hop artist released from a period of incarceration should magically emerge with a renewed thrust and sense of musical purpose. But that's not always realistic — and the first fruits of Prodigy's freedom suggest that any newfound verve hasn't seeped past his blogging.
The bluntly titled "Dog Shit" is his highest-profile new song since his release. From the title to the guest list — it features a rap from Prodigy's old Queensbridge cohort Nas, and production by the Alchemist — the song should have been a ballsy statement of intent. The track has a certain grimy appeal — it's based around a menacing piano loop and a brooding drum beat — but it sounds mainly like the uninspired and dated East Coast rap Prodigy was making before he was sentenced. The lyrics compound the disappointment, as the fiery statements he penned in prison are replaced with generic boasts like "Most infamous rapper out of Now Why/Jealous of my shine, the truth is in your eye."
A similar lack of excitement is present across Prodigy's free download project, The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP. The chorus of "Go Off" has him answering calls that he "fell off." But the lyrics don't live up to the challenge; Prodigy's raps amble where they should punch. "Black Devil" fares better, as he takes aim at shady, deceiving types and discusses "shape-shifters" who indulge in "ritualistic, cannibalistic, sadistic" deeds behind closed doors. But hearing Prodigy rap in his dour, sometimes-mumbled tones is less thrilling than reading his imaginative, all-caps blog rant about Molech's worshipers.
The new songs conjure up an image of Prodigy emerging from prison to find that the music world has changed. His response to this unfamiliar environment seems to be falling back to the comfortable styles and sounds he was trading in before his spell inside. But those sounds — midtempo beats, samples used to create an ominous vibe, and lyrics culled from thug-rap's vernacular — seem outdated. Hip-hop has moved on from Prodigy's template and now draws from a wider palette, both geographically and sonically.
For the opening New York City date on Mobb Deep's current tour, Prodigy and his partner Havoc rapped in front of a stage set replicating the Queensbridge housing projects they once inhabited. The image is iconic of the mid-'90s hip-hop scene, but in 2011 it resonates unkindly, suggesting the rappers are stuck in another era. Prodigy managed to reinvent himself as a cult Internet personality through his blogging, but he has yet to perform a similar trick with his music.