Though slumping record sales have forced a number of veteran rappers – Jay-Z, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg among them – into the same sort of heavy touring regimens that their rock peers have long endured, one big name has been missing from that list. After a long hiatus, seminal Queens duo Mobb Deep seem set to establish their live bona fides, playing a warm-up show to the packed House of Blues on Saturday in advance of a summer slot on the Rock the Bells stadium tour. But the Mobb’s comeback trail could be rockier than most.
Of all the acts to emerge during gangsta rap’s 1990s golden age, Mobb Deep were among the best, and certainly among the most influential. Nonetheless, their acceptance into the hip-hop pantheon has been a slow one, with the group’s Pierre Boulez-like stubbornness largely to blame. While most West Coast gangsta rappers delivered their gritty narratives with a breezy, top-down insouciance, and fellow East Coasters were savvy enough to temper their malevolence with radio-friendly odes to the good life, Deep’s music is forever shot through with a bleak, uncompromising sense of sadness.
Such darkness can make for an awkward transition to the stage – especially in a genre that still values party-starting in its live shows above all else – and though they had the good sense to skip mood-killers like “Party Over,” Mobb Deep’s 70-minute set studiously avoided any out-of-character frivolity. Turning recorded soliloquys into two-part routines while a DJ punctuated each song transition with gunshot effects, rappers Prodigy and Havoc offered as straightforward and old-school a rap show as 2011 audiences are likely to find.
Fresh off a three-year prison stint, and promoting new memoir, “My Infamous Life” (which took the place of t-shirts and CDs at the merch table), flagship MC Prodigy looked just as moody and sullen as ever. Boasting a bulging new set of muscles on his formerly slight frame – his childhood struggles with sickle-cell anemia are documented in strangely heartbreaking detail in his book – the rapper huddled in close to his partner for a kinetic rendition of “Eye for an Eye (Your Beef is Mines)” and slowly stalked the stage with sleepy-eyed confidence.
If the duo’s lyrical chemistry was at a high, the instrumental backline of their music got the short shrift. While the ominous synths of “G.O.D. Pt. III” and buzzsaw alarm peals of “Shook Ones Pt. II” startled the aud into hysterics, the creaky, cobwebby subtleties that distinguish some of their most famous productions were largely absent, absorbed into the booming live mix. More straightforward tracks like “Keep It Thoro” and “Quiet Storm” fared better, but these are issues that could only be exacerbated when the group takes to bigger stages.
Longtime group associate Big Noyd emerged onstage early on and stayed until the end, with his hyperactive gestures providing a nice counterpoint to the low-key menace of the two headliners. Otherwise, the show was largely free of stage-cluttering guests, save for an appearance from Lakers star Ron Artest – who hails from the same housing project as the duo – to recreate one of his more memorable post-game interviews.