It’s appropriate that the most-repeated line from a Mobb Deep song wasn’t rapped by either member of the street-approved duo. Lil’ Kim’s “Hot damn, ho, here we go again” soliloquy on the 1999 single “Quiet Storm (Remix)” upstaged not only Havoc’s and Prodigy’s own rhymes, but pretty much all the other verbiage in their catalog. Kim’s wordplay wasn’t necessarily more insightful or sophisticated than that of Queensbridge’s finest—she just sounded a lot more as if she belonged on the radio.

But Mobb Deep’s overall lack of pop charisma is exactly the source of its success. At their best, Havoc and Prodigy sound utterly immersed in the cause-and-effect psychology of street crime, like two of Philip K. Dick’s precogs. Almost every line—even on a tailor-made hit such as 2001’s “The Learning (Burn)”—is a boast or a threat, delivered with the assumption that emotions such as anger or despair only get in the way. The message is plain: Enemies will be shot, and that’s the fact, Jack.

Any exegesis of the duo’s new Amerikaz Nightmare could stop right there. Whereas other gangstas might assume various character roles or rap about a broad variety of ’hood dramas, Havoc and Prodigy keep things blood-simple. They prefer present tense—What’s happening now?—to past—Let us tell you a crazy story… —and their rhymes rarely reach beyond the moment: They’re more like wartime rhetoric than poetry. Even distractions such as women and drugs are placed within a world of gunplay: “I need a bitch like Christina Aguilery for a broad/I know I can splack that, she dyin’ for a thug/And she heard of me, she know about my infamous life,” declares Prodigy on “When U Hear The.” “Shootouts in New York with various types/Fast money, faster guns, we party e’ry night.”

It might sound rote now, but there was a time when the Mobb’s chilled-out delivery and jazz-touched grooves were among the most innovative things around. Sure, 1995’s The Infamous… was rife with gun tales, but it also sold the idea that East Coast gangstas had an obligation to sound at least vaguely stylish. And the stature of the album has only grown since: The Infamous… has influenced everyone from Hi-Tek to the latest generation of college-age beat junkies.

Though subsequent discs have consistently escalated the violence, they’ve rarely maintained an equivalent level of sonic invention. For the past nine years, Mobb Deep has been largely absorbed with trying to keep its street cred. The need for an occasional radio hit—and thus for collaborations with folks such as Kim—has been the only thing to break the grind. And once in a while, everything clicks the way it did on The Infamous…. “The Learning (Burn),” for example, was the complete package. Havoc, Prodigy, and guest Big Noyd rapped as if there was something at stake, vocalist Vita gave the “fuckin’ with semiautos” chorus just the right amount of sass, and the production, driven by a catchy keyboard riff, was radio-ready without overdoing it.

Havoc produced that song himself, confirming his rep as one of hiphop’s most underrated beat-makers. When Amerikaz Nightmare is in his hands, the same spirit seems to be moving him: “Flood the Block” is a lesson in forceful coolness, “One of Ours Part II” is satisfyingly uncluttered, and the synth squeals on “Shorty Wop” would be at home on one of the Kill Bill soundtracks. Much of the album belongs to the Alchemist, though, and when he isn’t evoking drug-fueled paranoia (“When U Hear The”), he’s usually just causing trouble.

At his best, the longtime Mobb collaborator knows exactly how much flash and dash to supply, but that temperance runs out at times. The low point is “Got It Twisted,” which borrows much of the music from Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science,” slows it down a tad, pumps up the bass, and loses none of the ridiculousness. There’s plenty of precedent for such a combination—Afrika Bambaataa was sampling Kraftwerk when Ronald Reagan was in the White House—but in Mobb Deep’s hands, the white-geekiness/black-danger juxtaposition just seems corny. It doesn’t help that Havoc intones, “M-O-B-B, nigga” just as Dolby’s pseudo-Goth keyboard hook comes in. Even worse, the “Got It Twisted Remix” features speed-rapper Twista doing his verbal Joe Satriani thing. Synths! Syllables! Save us.

Although the ’80s fever of “Got It Twisted” halts Amerikaz Nightmare in its tracks, the album doesn’t really collapse until it succumbs to another hiphop plague, cameoitis. On “Dump,” croone-for-hire Nate Dogg delivers a mean, monotone chorus that barely qualifies as a hook. Jadakiss provides little more than homophobia on “One of Ours Part II.” And on “Real Gangstaz,” Havoc and Prodigy fully submit to Lil’ Jon, who delivers a ho-hum crunk beat and plenty of profanity, though little in the way of realness—at least not of the convincingly bleak Mobb Deep variety. “Put your middle finger up/Fuck you, bitch,” he hollers during one breakdown. It’s funny, but does anybody listen to Mobb Deep discs for laughs?

Perhaps genuine psychopaths do, but the rest of us can find silly gangsta action elsewhere. Mobb Deep’s style has always been darker than most—and more difficult to pull off: Havoc and Prodigy succeed when they fool us into thinking that they’re not being artful, that their songs are cold, hard facts of life. On Amerikaz Nightmare, they simply step out of their violently circumscribed comfort zone too many times, whether it’s by diddling with Dolby or relying on other folks’ starpower.

One outsider does get it right, though: Kanye West shows up to fine-tune his old-soul sound to Mobb Deep’s world of confrontation. The groove for “Throw Your Hands (in the Air)” is built on samples of chopped-up strings that screech, sink, and float. As Havoc and Prodigy rap about the usual—gunplay and partying to the crack of dawn—the music provides its own battle in the background. It’s a testament to West’s creativity that the song would have sounded just as great on The Infamous…, but it also exposes the hardest thing about being a no-frills gangsta: The path to artistic success is so narrow that any deviation runs the risk of being loudly meaningless.CP