Prodigy was only 19 years old when Mobb Deep recorded 1995's The Infamous, a gritty, harrowing New York hip-hop album that, along with Enter the Wu-Tang, helped cement the mid-'90s East Coast sound. It should have been a setup to a long and towering career, but it ended up being a prologue without a follow-through. The duo faltered in the early part of the aughts, and their supposed resurrection as members of 50 Cent's G-Unit ended up producing the weakest record of their career, 2006's hopelessly (mis)calculated Blood Money.
So it's all the more inspiring to hear Prodigy lay deep into "Mac 10 Handle," one of the early tracks on this return-to-form mixtape. Over a barely-there funk track, Prodigy sets up a sinister scenario, plotting murder and mayhem while stewing in a dark bedroom. It's a chilling moment, and though it's not as effortless as the best parts of The Infamous, it's one of the many entries on Return that edges Prodigy back towards his former glory. There's a kind of gloom that hangs over the record — the title track is powered by groaning horns and a Biggie Smalls sample, and Prodigy icily itemizes a list of crimes and criminals like he's writing a mafioso's biography.
Prodigy may be its marquee star, but Alchemist is Return's secret weapon. He clips and loops bits of old R&B to create a uniform backdrop of desperation and decay. His deft hand and keen ear give even the obligatory tracks value. "Stuck on You" — essentially a gooey, for-the-ladies come-on — is enlivened by a humid soul sample and pizzicato strings.
Return's biggest shortcoming is lyrical; where Prodigy once excelled at crafting dense thicket of metaphor, here his verse is mostly lazy and pro forma — he has a tendency to rhyme words not because they make sense, but because they're homophones. "New York taught me/ there's no mercy/ there's no letting it slide, I'm so thirsty," he rhymes in "The Rotten Apple," and you'd be hard pressed to figure out what one idea had to do with the next. But even if his lyrics aren't as incisive or limber as they once were, Prodigy manages to sell them with a kind of slacker gravitas, laid back and determined all at once.
"We're just having fun," Prodigy insists on "P. Speaks." It's clear from his tone that he's trying to downplay the album's importance, but he shouldn't. Though there's nothing on Return that matches the doomsday drama of, say, "Shook Ones, Pt. 2" from Infamous, it's a solid and sinister effort nonetheless.