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Mobb Deep is one of a dying breed—the gangsta group that rarely aspires to be more than that. Dark and brooding, the duo of Havoc and Prodigy usually forsakes hip-pop’s glamorous world of clubs, jewels, and models for a gritty underground of alleys, corners, and urine-drenched staircases. It has become popular for the average yacht-owning, chartered-jet-flying rapper to boast himself a Don, but the members of Mobb Deep put on no more airs than a street drunk.

The Infamous, released in 1995, was the beginning of Mobb Deep’s prominence. During those days, hiphop was not yet pretty, and Mobb was surrounded by groups that also reveled in the griminess of the streets, from the Wu-Tang Clan to Black Moon. But while most of the Mobb’s early contemporaries have either become nonfactors or fallen out of the music industry completely, Havoc and Prodigy have endured.

Like all great rap albums, The Infamous, Mobb Deep’s second, draws its power from both its production and its MC-ing. Havoc—the album’s main producer—offered up a dark soundscape riddled with haunting organ riffs and snares that pop like gunshots. Lyrically, the disc is a street-level masterpiece, stretching from the meditative “The Start of Your Ending” to the brooding “Temperature’s Rising.” On “Give Up the Goods (Just Step),” Prodigy, the Mobb’s more articulate half, pretty well defined the group’s misanthropic lifestyle: “For years I been doin’ the same shit/Just drinkin’ liquor, doin’ bids, extortin’ crackheads/And stickin’ up the stick-up kids.”

There are those who insist that The Infamous is merely high-quality gangsta braggadocio. But appreciating the strength of The Infamous—and Mobb Deep in general—requires you to attend to the details of the album. You have to note Prodigy’s brooding monotone, the elegiac minimalism of Havoc’s tracks, and the fact that unlike most MCs, the guys in Mobb Deep don’t win at the end of every song. When properly understood, Mobb Deep is revealed as a group that specializes in singing the black-male blues, able to brag about its circumstances while still conveying their utter sadness.

But despite its relative longevity and compelling aesthetic, Mobb Deep still hasn’t elevated itself into the realm of the great groups of yore, populated by A Tribe Called Quest, EPMD, and Public Enemy. As bluesy and insightful as the Mobb often is, its members have a tendency toward laziness. And when they slack off, a Mobb Deep song simply becomes Havoc or Prodigy practicing different ways to say, “I will kill you.” (My personal favorite is “My gunshots’ll make you levitate,” from The Infamous’ classic “Shook Ones Pt. II.”)

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The new Infamy, the group’s fifth album, finds Mobb Deep at a crossroads of sorts. Although Havoc and Prodigy have made it longer than the average rap act, their record to date is mixed: two really good albums and two uninspiring ones. Moreover, they have been challenged and ruthlessly destroyed lyrically by rap’s self-declared king, Jay-Z. Now is the time for the Mobb to release a great album that redefines the group and reasserts its artistic relevance. Unfortunately, Infamy is the album a lot of Mobb Deep fans feared the group would make—repetitive, boring, and unchallenging. The best that can be said about the disc is that it’s still a Mobb Deep album; the worst that can be said about it is that it’s still a Mobb Deep album.

Havoc sticks to his guns and attempts to give Infamy a dark sonic aura laced with deep, foreboding key riffs and neck-snapping percussion. But there is something lacking in Infamy’s sound. From the album opener, “Pray for Me,” down to the final bonus track, “So Long,” vapid cuts are legion. It’s not so much that the tracks are bad as that they’re incomplete; they sound like beginnings without endings, interesting sketches but not much more. “The Learning (Burn)” features pounding drums and a nice sliding key riff but falls flat because, well, that’s about all it features. Ditto for “Pray for Me,” which also has the misfortune of the overexpressive Lil’ Mo singing the hook.

It’s amazing that Infamy could be so sloppy trackwise, given that it was made during a time when the bar for hiphop has been raised higher than ever. OutKast’s Stankonia forges alloys from jungle and funk, and Jay-Z’s The Blueprint is about as musically complex a hiphop album as you’ll see released commercially. Even DMX’s flawed but at times gripping The Great Depression suggests that the age of rote beats is coming to an end.

Into this sea of change steps Mobb Deep, executing the same formula it has used since The Infamous. This is especially true of the MC-ing. Prodigy has always been a gifted lyricist, but on Infamy, he brings little of that blessing to bear. On “Clap,” he proclaims—once again—his allegiance to the criminal life, without offering any of the insight he did on earlier records: “More money more murder, that’s how we live it/More diamonds more guns is the beginning/More of this gangsta shit can wear you out.” Havoc, though not in Prodigy’s league lyrically, held his own in the past but here disgraces himself on “Handcuffs,” an LL Cool J-style your-man-can’t-do-it-like-I-can rhyme that includes Havoc’s cringeworthy attempt to speed-rap a la early Jay-Z.

Just when you think it can’t get worse, it does, and the group makes a troubling attempt at a ballad with “Hey Luv (Anything).” There are a few rappers who can make the switch from callousness to sudden sensitivity—and neither Havoc nor Prodigy is among them. Duetting with the amorphous-voiced chanteuse 112, Prodigy attempts his best Father MC rendition: “You so fine, I just wanna roll with you/You a queen bitch, you need a king close to you/You need a nigga like P to just flow with you.” The cut comes off as utterly disingenuous, akin to something by Big Daddy Kane in his Prince of Darkness era.

Even if it’s not Mobb’s last shot at greatness, Infamy is a missed opportunity. A solid fifth album would have put the group on par with any of rap’s greats, but this lazy effort merely puts it on par with the also-rans. Perhaps more disturbing, this is the second time the group has put out a half-baked album after being challenged by one of rap’s elite. Hell on Earth was a mediocre reply to Tupac’s brutal assaults; Infamy is a pretty forgettable reply to Jay-Z. Even more than their inability to change, Havoc and Prodigy’s wilting away in the face of a challenge is a bad omen for Mobb Deep fans everywhere. CP