Return of the Mac Mixtape
By Mark Abraham | 11 May 2007
From the man who at nineteen threatened to stab our brains with our nose bones over Havoc production that anticipated the increasingly grainy trend in hip hop which would land us somewhere around Cannibal Ox seven years later—the same year that Jay-Z’s deafening Polaroid shot put pretty much drowned Prodigy’s career at the infamous (hee) Hot 97 Summer Jam festival—we get this mix tape another six years later where P. finally recovers by doing what he was doing back when he was 19: telling us what’s realer about his life than ours. But what made “Shook Ones Pt. II” and The Infamous (1995) proper so vital was the youth and hunger of Prodigy and Havoc and the context: in the pre-Reasonable Doubt (1996) era, Wu-tang, Nas, and Mobb Deep were the New York scene. And depending on how you feel about Jigga, the New York scene might be the halcyon moment where street cred and poetry collapsed against one another with utter sincerity. No matter how “The Takeover” affected Prodigy and Nas in 2001, Jay-Z didn’t have the power to erase the power of their pre-Jay work. And he says as much while he’s dissing them.
This makes it weirder to approach Return of the Mac than it might be. Havoc’s production on The Infamous was rightly praised due to his ability to refine the Shaolin fantasies of the RZA and the then-encyclopedic Illmatic (1994) to something that sounded closer to the reality of his and Prodigy’s life in the Queensbridge housing projects of Long Island. In the present, P. has tapped Alchemist—a white kid who grew up in Beverly Hills—to power his comeback with a rush of beats that sound like they’re consciously trying to recall the grainy quality of Mobb Deep’s early work with digital film. The problem isn’t Alchemist—he’s a great producer and the album doesn’t hinge on his cred—so much as it is the weird position Prodigy ends up in. When he’s schooling us on New York cred on the title track—apparently, “One hundred million is New York rich”—I’m more interested in the wicked horn sample breakdown Alchemist throws in at the end of the track. There’s a lot of fun production like that all over the album—the funk disco of “Take it to the Top” or the downcast guitar sample of “The Rotten Apple”—and the dub-worthy low end easily distracts you from the fact that, rather than the rapid fire flow Prodigy used to excel at while lobbing interesting turns of phrase every other line, the Mac has returned to throw some really good lines at us every once in a while surrounded by rote descriptions of how many guns he has.
Except, here’s the problem: the New York presented on the album is in some ways a reclamation of a “real” New York from the millennial narrative of the Big Apple. Tragedies have befallen the city, yes, but the gritty underworld of ganstas and poverty-stricken African Americans that Mobb Deep chronicled in 1995 is, according to the album, still alive and well: “New York made me this way / I’m all about a buck.” The album isn’t overtly political enough to point out the disparity between a 9/11 narrative (wherein a noble city is attacked) and the reality of experience for many of the city’s inhabitants (who live in crisis everyday), and that’s okay. This is Prodigy’s big hard G-Unit record; it doesn’t have to be political. But since it isn’t, this reclamation of the Rotten Apple comes off less like a mission statement and more like nostalgia. And it doesn’t matter so much that Prodigy obviously isn’t living in a “dirty ass room” anymore even as he says he is (though, really: the residuals off of “Shook Ones Pt. II” aren’t enough to afford a cleaner?) as much as the routine is already hollow because we know the trajectory of his career. This is a comeback, but it’s a comeback from quite a few years of shit, and the brilliance of The Infamous is an event horizon; it isn’t quite so easy to bridge the gap between now and then. Mac, Mack, Machiavelli; you can lob those honorifics around like daggers or throw pillows, and where before he was using his victim’s own nose bone, now he just says “stab” like it carries the same weight.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t moments of brilliant imagery and great clarity, and taken on it’s own merits the mixtape is pretty satisfying. If we don’t delve too much into the lyrical content of present Mac v. past Prodigy (or, for that matter, the fact that Prodigy can’t be a prodigy anymore) we can acknowledge that Return of the Mac might be the first real template for what direction the kind of rapper Prodigy is might take late in their career. Y’know, since Kingdom Come (2006) weren’t it, and he and his ilk aren’t able to punch out Moment of Truth (1998). This isn’t Mark Morrison; here the Mac returns to tell us about his Mac 10s and 11s and the rest of his gun collection (he owns X number of guns where “X” as a quantity is the same as the model number of the given weapon). “The shit don’t end” he sighs; he’s not referring to owning a ludicrous thirty-eight 38s but to the hassles he once thought were worth engaging in to get them in the first place. New York made him this way. Fine. In some ways that’s the message, and I’ll buy it to an extent, but why does he still need to be this way? Is this album about how well he’s playing the game or how well he played it? Are we supposed to jaw-drop at his ability to sound cocky and weary at the same time? When Prodigy is reminding everybody how they had to get a bigger chain after the “L.A. L.A.” video are we supposed to nod our heads and smile and forget about how stupid “Stop Fronting” is?
I can’t answer these questions. I’m happy to hear Prodigy sounding engaged and excited again, even if the quality of his lyricism doesn’t match his newfound enthusiasm. I’m impressed with Alchemist’s production on many of the tracks. But even given the mixtape format, this is a nice diversion more than a masterful statement. Unless, of course, you believe in gangsta shit.