In the years since Mobb Deep‘s 1996 hit “Shook Ones (Part II)” was released, the song has attained legendary status among hip-hop listeners due to its many unique attributes, such as its darkly timbral, sonic world full of police sirens and impossible amounts of lingering reverb, and its equally rugged linguistic play, equipped with menacing threats and staggering boasts.
Yet, as I’ve been reflecting on Prodigy’s unfortunate and premature passing this past Tuesday at age 43, listening back to Mobb Deep’s body of work, I realized that what should truly set this song apart in the canonical era of mid-90s hip-hop is its inimitable balance between the looping beat in the background and its foregrounded rap melodies.
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As we go about dissecting that complicated relationship, we’ll see how the disjunction in the alignment between the beat and the rap — usually taken for granted in so many other rap songs — is not only rhythmically engaging but also a perfect reflection of the jumbled, upside-down underworld that Mobb Deep paints on the track.
Typically, where a rapper’s sentences begin and end is usually perfectly lined up with where the musical loop that plays behind them begins and ends. This larger type of rhythmic alignment is necessary because it’s the compromise that allows rappers to make their rhythms much more varied and diverse on a smaller scale in the form of the complicated, addictive polyrhythms of Big Daddy Kane on “The Wrath of Kane” or the constantly mutating subdivisions of MF DOOM on “Vomitspit.”
In music, laws almost always beg to be broken. But in hip-hop, specifically, there exists a kind of added pressure for rappers to provide rhythmic reasoning for leaving the grid behind and declining to follow it’s path. Unlike in a lot of other genres of songwriting, in rap, delivery is everything. It’s why a lot of listeners find rappers like 2 Chainz boring, and it’s why others like André 3000 on “Aquemini” or Notorious B.I.G. on “Hypnotize” are considered so inventive and enjoyable.
On the latter, Biggie starts and ends his sentences in places that are all over the bar: beat two of the second bar of a verse, beat three of the ninth bar of a verse, and so on. This might be why Mos Def himself has referred to Notorious as “the mathematician of flow.” This is exemplified in the very first bars of “Hypnotize.”
Biggie begins with an unexpected, opening rest on beat one of his first verse’s first bar with a simple reference to himself: “Pop!” He then goes on to unfurl a series of sentences that start and end all over the bar: his phrase, “Papa twist cabbage off instinct” begins on a fourth beat, but ends on a second beat.
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It’s the rarer rapper, however, who will completely turn this close relationship on its head. As it turned out, Prodigy, as well as his fellow Mobb Deep member Havoc, were two such artists. Although he should certainly be praised for his lyrical and poetic talents, Prodigy should be recognized for his musical abilities as well.
Just like on Biggie’s track, Prodigy and Havoc’s intention of playing with the beat–rap relationship is apparent from the beginning notes of “Shook Ones (Part II).” Since the beat establishes itself as pretty straightforward, a 4/4 time signature at 95 bpm, we need to wait 20 or so seconds for the off-time sample to enter and the track to start developing some density. The piano bass line in D♭ minor is an extremely slowed-down sample of Herbie Hancock‘s 1969 song “Jessica.”
And perhaps it’s this fragmented rhythmic relationship that inspired Mobb Deep to replicate such a purposeful, out-of-sync feel in their vocal melodies. Their own rhythmic jaggedness comes across in how Havoc and Prodigy both chose to line up their sentences with respect to that backing beat behind them, because, well, they didn’t. At all!
In fact, over and over again, both chose to begin their sentences in the exact middle of that backing track.
And here’s why: Even though the loop begins with a D♭ in the piano’s melody, Havoc and Prodigy begin their verses coinciding with the G♭ in the middle of that melodic phrase. This happens first at 0:27 in the song, as can be seen in the notation below.
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This divorce between the beginning of the beat and the beginning of the rap also unmistakably happens later at 2:19 when Havoc begins his accompanying verse. And the musical disjointedness is even preserved when the choruses enter at 1:49 and 3:22.
Now, this kind of phrasal dislocation is by no means unheard of in popular music. A great example: Weezer’s “Pink Triangle” has a 15-bar voice that’s balanced out into a symmetrical 32-bar super grouping by a succeeding 17-bar chorus. And back to hip-hop, Nas balances out a six-bar outro chorus on “Represent” with the 18-bar verse that follows, preserving rap’s all-important four-bar structure. The same goes for “Oh No” by Mos Def featuring Pharoahe Monch and Nate Dogg.
But what is so interesting and arresting about “Shook Ones (Part II),” is that Havoc and Prodigy never resolve this kind of structural disharmony. Is the sample lagging behind the beat, is the rap following the sample, or are the vocals just falling into the cracks between the beat and piano track?
In hip-hop, the listener is always confronted with the unstable hierarchy of the vocals over the beat. Whenever there’s a question as to which is leading the song forward, the emphasis tends to fall on the vocals. And it’s often the most interesting, illuminating music that straddles that line closely and attempts to call this hierarchy into question.
In Mobb Deep’s vivid music, this quite often happens both lyrically and musically. In many of the songs on their 1995 album The Infamous, you can’t really trust anyone in the world they’re painting around you, and you also can’t trust what you used to take for granted. For a bit more on how Prodigy’s lyrics on his solo effort, “Mac 10 Handle,” accomplish this sense of unreliability and tension through its lyrics and beat in consort, I urge you to read David Abravanel’s excellent piece here.
The innovative musicality that Prodigy brought to his art, and his ineffable dynamic chemistry alongside his partner Havoc, will be remembered and referenced for a long time to come, as some of the true contributions he made to this genre. And with that, it might be best to end this article with perhaps the best line Prodigy ever penned.
“Now take these words home and think it through
Or the next rhyme I write might be about you…”
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