I laughed after listening to the opening three songs on Albert Einstein. Not that there's anything amusing about Prodigy's team-up with Alchemist. Far from it. For his part, the Mobb Deep man still rhymes like he's suffering from a particularly paranoid bout of depression. Alchemist's beats are in that zone where it seems like he's soundtracking illegal bare-knuckle fights down rancid, piss-strewn alleyways. The 16 songs that make up the project exist in a murky nook far away from the idea of corporate-branded hits to swindle the mainstream and colorful overnight viral Internet sensations. I laughed because for all the bluster about a new wave of New York City rappers being part of a renaissance movement, Prodigy has cut an album that reminds the world that he not only created much of the template that those sprouting up now want to emulate but that he still makes music at a substantially higher level than they've reached. It's men and children stuff. So all you can do is laugh wryly about it. The record is that good.
The make-up of Albert Einstein is classical: One producer makes beats, one MC raps, and both inspire the best in the other. Prodigy's ambit is smartly focussed. “All I know is pain,” he claims on the closer, “Say My Name,” and most of the album is filtered through a tone of voice that's afflicted with the sort of tangible grain that suggests life scars and lessons learnt the brutal way. On “Breeze” he quips, “I'm alcoholed out/ I can't even drink orange juice 'cause it remind me of the gin I was swimming in.” “Confessions” has him suffering from insomnia, leaving his crib at 4 a.m. to buy a packet of cigarettes at the store and then somehow stumbling into revenge and gunplay. In the background, the rain streams down. It's bleak stuff, but brilliantly so. The whole shebang is also cut through with P's now standard belief in other-worldly conspiracy theories (“Give 'Em Hell” has him waffling on about “psychic vampires”) and some amazingly literal metaphor play, like “Curb Ya Dog”: “Tell ya dog sit down before I put him down/ I euthanize much when they step out of bounds.” Then comes a chorus that involves the claim “we're vets we not pets.” It's like P's been briefly inhabited with the possibly-on-the-run spirit of Tim Dog.
Alchemist's production is aptly in synch with Prodigy's song-writing. The beats brood and play the background when they need to, and then spark into life to add flashes of action. The guest list to this stark shindig is kept short and exclusive: Roc Marciano blesses the eerie “Death Sentence,” Action Bronson pops up on the perky “The One” and claims “I felt certain I was born to be the best earthling,” and Raekwon and P's Mobb Deep partner Havoc line-up on the sterling E.S.G.-sampling “R.I.P.” The remaining odd card comes from Odd Future's Domo Genesis who holds his own on the introspective “Y.B.T.” The rest is P's show.
Albert Einstein has been released during a rich blockbuster period of hip-hop. This week's trio of Kanye West, J. Cole and Mac Miller are followed by Jay-Z's Samsung S.E.O. jape in early July, while that month also sees projects from Joey Bada$$, both of the Clipse brothers, and M.M.G.'s loon-on-the-lose Gunplay. But despite Albert Einstein's relatively low-key status, Prodigy's project will stand up to any of them. At this point in his veteran career Prodigy might well be a darn national treasure — and he doesn't need to allude to deity status to convince of his worth. All hail the P.