PREFACE: Reviewing records based on listens in a record label conference room sucks. I had to write this one that way - before the Hell On Earth advance cassettes with the intermittent vulture sounds got around. It was a lead review for Vibe , which at the time ran at 800 words, kind of unheard of now for print. As I listened I remember thinking how I couldn't believe Mobb Deep made an album even bleaker than The Infamous . I remember frantically scribbling down a lot of lyrics, and hoping I could decipher them later. The version of the album I heard included "In the Long Run " - which went after Keith Murray and Def Squad as part of the beef stemming from that "crazy space shit that don't make no sense" interlude on The Infamous - but that song didn't make the album. Diss tracks that you got to hear once but never made the final album - that was the type of rap intrigue we lived for back then.
When I read this review now I'm struck by how obvious it is that I cared so deeply about this music. It wound up imbuing our lives to the point where there were lines from Hell On Earth that we, the ego trip people, would jokingly reference and inject into two out of every three daily conversations regardless of subject matter or context (e.g. "MAN DOWN"; "That's how it is, and how it is, is kinda fucked up"; "Fuck rap"; "Sometimes I test myself, see if I still got it" etc.).
Anyways, I think the piece turned out all right even though the best observation - the blues analogy - is something I basically stole from Sacha. BUT at least I asked him if it was cool first.
Revolutions: Mobb Deep – Hell On Earth (Loud)
Words: Chairman Mao
Originally published in Vibe magazine December 1996/January 1997
“Fuck where you’re at, kid, it’s where you’re from,” rhymed Mobb Deep’s Havoc on “Right Back At You” – one of several outstanding compositions from the duo’s brilliantly belligerent 1995 sophomore LP, The Infamous . With that agitated sentiment, partners-in-rhym Havoc and Prodigy obliterated the spiritual message of one of hip-hop’s most lasting and oft-quoted axioms (Rakim’s “It ain’t where you from, it’s where you at” from 1987’s “I Know You Got Soul”), twisting it into a foreboding word of warning appropriate for an alienated, territorial constituency devoid of optimism.
Spearheaded by such anthemic pavement pounders as “Shook Ones Pt. 2,” “Survival of the Fittest,” and “Give Up the Goods,” The Infamous established Mobb Deep as their generation’s troubled spokesmen, whose cold worldview occasionally extended beyond their Queensbridge housing project existence. With expertly executed, at times even pleasantly melodic, music setting the foundation (much of it assisted incognito by A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip), an abundance of quotable lyrics affirmed the Mobb mentality of poetic street justice: “No matter how much loot I get I’m stayin’ in the projects forever”; “Now you fuckin’ with kids that’s lifeless.”
One year later, Mobb Deep’s elegant symphony of brutality commences its third movement. Even darker than its predecessor, Hell On Earth is yet another astounding work that impresses with its unswaying devotion to the group’s disturbingly insular environment. With Havoc triumphantly commanding the production duties, the edgier, orchestra-dominated tracks generally neglect the random melodious ironies of The Infamous for a sound garden that ups the intensity way past normal comfort levels. Amid cascading string swells and piano chords, self-awareness briefly rears its head on “Animal Instinct” (“I’m tired of living life this way/ Crime pay/ But for how long?/ ’Til you reach a downfall”); but any notions of Mobb going the straight and narrow are rubbed out as rapidly as potential adversaries are in their songs.