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Free the P!

It's Wednesday night at Santo in Miami Beach, and most folks in the hip-hop know are in attendance. Local rapper Jackie-O is in the building with her new partner Remy Ma because the two are looking to create a new girl group called 3Sum. They're scouting talent tonight for a third female lyricist to round out their group. Considering how raunchy and risqué both MCs are, the name of their outfit seems fitting. It's no surprise that their portion of the VIP section is off the hook. At the same time, R&B singer Mario is having a record release party for an album that doesn't leave a lasting impression, and VH1 is on hand filming. Bad Boy Record's latest cast of Making the Band 4 are partying it up, and Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown is lurking around with his offensive line, trying to celebrate his 26th birthday. Bottles are popping, blunts are being lit, and everyone is having a good time.

Across the room in a separate VIP section, a few people have gathered around Prodigy from Mobb Deep. He doesn't attract the star power here in South Florida that he does in his native New York, but he's still regarded as hip-hop royalty. Rather than play up his status, Prodigy is pensive, clearly preferring not to party it up. His state of mind is drastically different from most of the other celebrities in the room (although it always has been), as he's spending his last few days of freedom trying to stay sane.

It's a relatively brief trip to South Florida for Prodigy, 16 hours in all (which includes spending time with his mother, who lives in Miami Beach), but there's a sense of urgency to everything he does. Two months ago, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison stemming from a gun charge. On January 9, he has to turn himself in to start serving his time. He's in town now talking to select music journalists about the facts of his case and trying to drum up support for his upcoming solo album, HNIC 2, scheduled for release in early March.

When we first met earlier that day in Fort Lauderdale, Prodigy — or P as he's more commonly referred to — had just finished filming some DVD material to be included with the album. He's got music videos for all 13 songs on the record, which in itself is rare. It's not enough to just have a CD as a parting gift to fans; he wants to make sure people can get a full representation of who he really is. He's also got a new website, which launched last week, chronicling his last days on the outside.

"The website's only been up for six days, and I'm on there blogging every day," says Prodigy. "I want to connect with my fans on a one-to-one basis, so when folks leave comments, I write 'em back."

It's a humbling perspective, but Prodigy has no choice but to learn from his mistake and flip it into a positive. He's quick to acknowledge that he's headed to prison for a crime he committed: illegal weapon possession. But he says he was set up. He was busted by the New York Police Department's special Hip-Hop Task Force, a unit whose sole purpose is said to be to monitor rap artists.

"Those dudes are real, man, there is no myth about it," he says. "We see them out all the time, and the way they operate is so shady. They basically just harass rappers, pull you over for no reason, and just try to make you feel nervous. It's a total abuse of power."

Special task forces work in cities like Miami, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, and they've reportedly been assigned to cover high-profile entertainers like Lil Kim, the Game, and 50 Cent. Prodigy says he'd seen the officers assigned to him previously, but he didn't think they'd be able to outsmart him. In October 2006, it turned out he was wrong. After being pulled over for making an illegal U-turn and being ordered out of his vehicle, the police found a .22 caliber weapon in the vehicle. According to P, the police didn't ask his permission to search the vehicle, and he assumed he'd easily beat the case.

"But when we got to the grand jury, the officer just lied on the stand and said he saw me put the gun in the glove box, so that threw out illegal search and seizure right there," he says. "It's bullshit, but that shows the depths these cats will go to get us off the street."

In his mind, what's done is done, P says now, and he's got to focus on making sure his music is heard. Judging by what's on the new album, HNIC 2 is much better than his first solo album. It's a return to the gritty sounds and witty wordplay that P was always known for. A bit of that is evidenced later on that night, when Prodigy is brought up on stage by the house band to perform Mobb Deep's most popular song to date, "Shook One's Pt. 2." It's an impromptu performance, and the place goes ape when he hits the stage wearing a "Free the P" T-shirt. The backing band is tight, P is in his element, and he easily outshines all of the other performers of the evening.

When he gets off stage, the crowd starts chanting, "Mobb Deep, Mobb Deep!" Prodigy is happy that folks still care about his music.

"It feels good to get up there and get love like that," he says. "Since I'm going away to do a bid, I can appreciate all of it that much more."

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Jonathan Cunningham

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