In the age of hip-hop artists banking on their brands rather than their art, Albert “Prodigy” Johnson’s “H.N.I.C.” is a pleasant and powerful surprise. One half of the legendary and enduring Mobb Deep, Johnson could’ve gone the route of so many of his contemporaries—clothing lines and endorsement deals and reality television—but instead chose the less lucrative, more powerful path: ideas. “H.N.I.C.” is first title from Akashic’s new Infamous Books imprint (helmed by Johnson and his manager, Marvis Johnson), which will focus on work from established crime and urban fiction authors.
“H.N.I.C.,” by Albert “Prodigy” Johnson (with Steve Savile), is a novella about “Pappy,” a young thug trying to move beyond the robbery game and the neighborhood he grew up in, and his long-time friend, “Black,” their crew’s coked-up, Desert Eagle-wielding “Head Nigga in Charge.” After Black botches what was supposed to be Pappy’s last stick-up job with the crew, Black leverages their lifelong friendship with Pappy to get him to stay for one more effort—with disastrous results.
“H.N.I.C.” utilizes a third-person narrator, which was unexpected considering the content. The third-person narration is at times myopic—leaving the reader questioning the environment of the scene or what Pappy and his boys look like—but suits the story and serves it in a couple of different ways. It makes sense that we would be limited to only the thoughts and feelings of our protagonist—in this case, a protagonist struggling to break free of his violent past. Of course Pappy’s thoughts would not include detailed rundowns of his friends’ looks. But why not have Pappy narrate? It could be a question of reliability. Third-person narration allows the reader to trust Pappy as they follow his journey.
A secondary plotline, which grows into the book’s focus by its end, is the connection between Pappy and “Tonya,” Black’s much put-upon girlfriend. The urban fiction trope of hypes and hos is not leaned on—it’s in fact avoided—by Johnson, and it makes for more realistic characterization and character development. This is crucial. Readers can be quick to discount tellings of high-stakes crime, or the dynamics of small crews, as “unrealistic”; ensuring his characters are strong throughout, Johnson removes this questionability from the equation. Pair strong characters with a reliable narrator, and readers are swept into the novella, carried through each violent, high-stakes scene in good hands.
The true strength of “H.N.I.C.” lies in the display of relationships between young Black men. It would be unfair to lump this novella in with the more pulpy titles of the urban fiction genre; how many pulp works explore relationship dynamics in an honest, non-preachy way? Fiction does it’s best work when it offers its audience a way into a world they’re not familiar with through honesty. The dialog between Black and his boys is some brutally straight-forward stuff. Johnson doesn’t pull any punches.
Prodigy may not be the first hip-hop artist to make the leap from lyricist to author and publisher (50 Cent has also published a memoir and started an imprint), he’s poised to bring more literary fiction strengths to the urban fiction genre. Stay tuned; maybe we’ll see more from Pappy and Tonya and Black in the future.
Prodigy photo by Chris Velasco