Some rappers co-opt gangsters’ names simply because it sounds good, but on The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP, Prodigy‘s first post-penitentiary mixtape, the Queensbridge rhymester does well at proving that his life truly parallels that of the principled hustler for which his tape is titled.
The tape’s interludes, which feature audio snippets of scenes from Hoodlum, the Laurence Fishburne-led film that fictionalized Bumpy’s life, make it even more obvious that P is positioning himself as the modern day version of the hood hero: in one scene, the community praises Bumpy for protecting them and reaffirming the purpose for all his bloodshed; in another, Bumpy flexes his power, putting a thief in his place; later, someone asks Bumpy why he kills, and he succinctly explains how his actions reflect his passion for his people. The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP finds P putting his life in perspective, finally recognizing his role in both the rap and the real world. And like Bumpy, Prodigy wants to be both feared, revered, and respected for what he’s brought to the game. His rhymes are as serious, straight-forward, menacing and meaningful as ever, demonstrating a disciplined and focused dedication to redefining his life and re-establishing his eminence in the industry.
Though the rap vet might not flow with the fervor of his youth or rhyme as much about murder and mayhem, his lyrics still smolder with a subtle fire that shows he’s not to be played with, unless, of course, you want to get burned. The haunting organs and sinister synths of “Twilight” let him and Havoc paint a picture of the streets that raised them, and “Go Off” and “One and Only,” a shadowy, back-alley banger produced by The Alchemist, remind peeps that P’s been good in the hood since way back, and even after a three-year bid, he still is.
But he’s not here to dwell on the past. This mixtape is a manifesto for the future, a proclamation that P is older, wiser, and more concerned with deading stress and living for success than running the streets. “Black Devil,” the tape’s centerpiece and moral compass, takes black folks to task for their negativity, spouting revelations reminiscent of Malcolm X after the Hajj. Lines like “erase the racism/the only thing I see when I look at a person is good or evil” are a sure sign that Prodigy’s had the type of change of heart and mind that only comes with time, experience and maturity. The Nina Simone-sampling “Stronger” is another statement-maker, with P boasting of being battle-tested and ready for war, but smart enough to do what it takes to avoid the fight altogether.
“This is real world music/reality rap/we spent too many years on that fantasy crap,” he scoffs, and he’s right — in the three years he spent upstate, little about hip hop has changed. But Prodigy has, and The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP is a solid reintroduction to an East Coast rap icon who’s transforming his brand of street-certified storytelling into something a little more sophisticated.