I was kind of off the New York MCs for a while back there, mainly because every last one of them sounded like he was gargling about a pint of liquid bogies up in the back of his schnozzle, and it all seemed to blend into a generic snotty whine of some slightly bored sounding guy telling you either that his pants just fell down or that he's actually the richest man who ever lived, punctuated with sniffles. With hindsight I realise that my ear was simply pointed in the wrong direction for a couple of months, that being the direction in which one finds Noreaga, but it was enough to unfortunately dim the appeal of Mobb Deep. I'd heard them guest on other people's tracks, and whilst I could sort of see they had some use, I imagined a whole album would probably be weighed down with bogie action and would almost certainly feature a couple of tracks where the rapping was reduced to just coughing and sneezing, maybe a few of those farts you only ever hear when someone is on their death bed with the sound of some guy sobbing quietly in the background; all of which just goes to show how wrong you can be.
Musically this one represents Mobb Deep when they were at their best by my duly schooled reckoning, at their most darkly atmospheric - not quite the smokey monochrome of the jazz basement at four in the morning so much as being stood outside it in the pissing rain and freezing cold. The beats are right up front with the music as something heard in the distance, a broken piano, an echoing horn or some speaker cracking bass pumped out of a car at the lights three blocks away. For something with so few components, it's astonishing how much it does; and for something which sounded like quite a few other things from the same era - particularly as produced by Large Professor and the RZA - it's astonishing how this sounds so much like it's own thing, and how little it sounds like an album recorded two decades ago.
This is probably down to subject matter, namely the timeless theme of life kicking you in the teeth over and over, which is unfortunately as valid today as it ever was; and carries particular conviction here as Mobb Deep always sounded like they hadn't eaten for three days; and if such a description still doesn't quite do it, you can sort of reverse engineer Sleaford Mods back to this album providing you don't mind a wholesale swapping around of all the cultural references. If nothing else it at least makes more sense than Sleaford Mods as the Fall fronted by John Cooper Clarke or whatever it is this week.
As is probably obvious, it didn't take me too long to realise I was just listening to the wrong stuff where New York was concerned, and The Infamous was amongst the more simultaneously terrifying and exciting affirmations of this realisation. Twenty years later it still sounds like one of the hardest records ever made, definitely in rap terms, and certainly up there with Illmatic, Ready to Die and other more generally willingly acknowledged masterpieces. Survival of the Fittest, Temperature's Rising and Shook Ones would alone be enough to support its status, but there's a whole hour of this seriously hungry shit, and every last toot and fart of such power as to make the act of writing about it more or less redundant.