DMX closes out his song “Look Thru My Eyes” with the words “Feel the pain, feel the joy / Of a man, who was never a boy.” This, in two lines, is his entire career, as well as his autobiography. DMX’s music was intoxicating and horrifying. He barks after those closing lines, and somehow the bark, which showed up a lot, never felt like a gimmick. It could be vicious, it could be wounded, but it was never false. That kind of thing is hard to pull off in a genre built on presenting fiction as fact.
I don’t mean that as an insult. I love when rappers lie to me. To hear them tell it they’re all killers, dons, money long, pushing something foreign they’re going to put up in a twelve-car garage. I don’t think anybody should have a garage that big, but it sounds good. If a rapper has real charisma they’ll have you repeating the lies and undermining your own station in life. I find myself shouting, apropos of nothing, “they catch feelings, I catch bodies” or “ya nigga in my DMs and he writing love letters” as though I’m not the one who catches feelings and writes letters. A great rapper isn’t just a good poet, but a good actor. The beat makes you suspend disbelief; the voice makes you believe.
Nobody sounded like X. If he wasn’t your favorite rapper then he was better than your favorite. He rapped in a way no one else could. He didn’t ride beats so much as drive them, and when they didn’t suit him he rolled right over them. Irv Gotti, then an A&R rep at Def Jam, tried to capitalize off the stunning early success of Ja Rule, Jay-Z and DMX by forming a supergroup called Murder Inc. It fell apart almost immediately, and it’s easy to see why. You can’t have a man gunning for the title of King of New York and Best Rapper Alive in a group with someone who doesn’t even seem to recognize the legitimacy of the throne. In Backstage, the documentary about the 1999 Hard Knock Life Tour that DMX and Jay-Z headlined, a cypher breaks out in one of the green rooms. This was Jay when he still wore jerseys and du-rags and spat black mafioso rap (“feds still tryna build a case since ’93”). The whole verse is built off the bemused, silky flow he would ride to a billion dollars. When he finishes, we hear sounds of approval from a group of opening acts and hangers-on. DMX keeps nodding to the beat. When his turn comes he’s frenetic. His body bounces and his head snaps—not always on the same page as his shoulders. He finishes with a brutal image—“a straight razor will put pinstripes across your windpipe”—and brings a joint to his lips without taking a breath. The crowd, to my ears, is noticeably more impressed.
X was arguably the biggest thing in rap at the time, and it’s hard to overstate what it means that he was even in the running for the title. 1998 saw the release of Money, Power & Respect, Vol 2… Hard Knock Life, Capital Punishment, 400 Degreez; The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, Charge It 2 da Game, Confessions of Fire, and Aquemini. Master P and Snoop Dogg’s albums seemed to point to No Limit as the next Death Row or Bad Boy. Eminem was signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment off the strength of The Slim Shady EP. A 22-year-old 50 Cent appeared for the first time on Onyx’s “React.” O.D.B. rushed the stage at the Grammys to inform the audience that the awards show had gotten it wrong. In the midst of that extraordinary year DMX released two number one albums—It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood—and appeared in Hype Williams’s drama Belly, which lifts its opening lines from a verse on Hell Is Hot: “I sold my soul to the devil, price was cheap.”
According to the lore, DMX was single-handedly responsible for the end of the shiny suit era, but that’s not quite right. It’s true that label executives, as well as future labelmate Jay-Z, didn’t think DMX was worth signing, convinced that there was no way his work would find a wide audience. He made “depressing” music (this was Jay-Z’s assessment, according to Gotti), rather than the pop-inflected ebullience they were convinced was the sound of the future. They were wrong, but only about DMX. The specifics would change, but rap had a taste for opulence and the brighter, catchier music that could afford it. In retrospect, what was unique about the moment wasn’t that luxury was displaced by the grit and realism that had initially defined the genre—it was that real luxury hadn’t yet arrived. People had gotten rich off rap, but not wealthy. Rap wasn’t yet the basic sound of pop music. “I want it all from the Rolexes to the Lexus,” Biggie had declared, but a few years later Kanye would position the same brand as what people without money aspired to own (“Couldn’t afford a car, so she named her daughter Alexis”). Rappers would soon trade up for Rolls Royces and Maybachs. Who needed shiny suits when you could get them bespoke? DMX, meanwhile, was best known for riding ATVs through Yonkers. At the turn of the millennium rap was still teetering on the edge between working-class music and global mass entertainment. As the industry shifted toward the latter, the Ruff Ryders star hung on to a life and sound that would soon disappear.
To put it simply: DMX sang the blues. I think we can get carried away in tying various black cultural forms to each other in ways that the work itself can’t support. Neat processes of development materialize far less than disjuncture, diversity and parallel evolution. A lot of rap is not the blues. “Stunt 101” taught me a few things, but none of them was about what it means to hurt or the peculiar comfort of hearing hurt—not yours, maybe worse than yours—urgently expressed. A number of DMX songs are hard to listen to for reasons other than their emotional honesty. There is no need to add the caveat that they have become more so as social mores have changed. “Where the Hood At?” was so blisteringly homophobic that much of it couldn’t be played on the radio. It was a hit anyway. Rap fans and detractors alike have never really known what to do with these situations. It is easy to say that rap’s penchant for the brutally offensive is a contradiction, arising as it does from a group often on the receiving end of such language, but it’s more of a logical outcome. If you let people steeped in American culture and exposed to some of its greatest violence speak their mind, they are likely to share some disturbing things. There is no real defense to be made. In a better world, the public would have taken less pleasure in DMX’s more grotesque lyrics, and I also have to assume that in that same reality a 16-year-old kid wouldn’t have been sentenced to a juvenile detention facility over the theft of a dog. That world would have responded to a child suffering abuse at the hands of his mother, sleeping in the streets and robbing people to provide for himself and his pets, as someone deeply in need of support and care. What made DMX hard to dismiss, beyond his technical skill, was how cognizant he was of his own failures and of what had made him into who he was. “I’m slippin’, I’m fallin’, I can’t get up” is the condition of most of his music. Even when he put the word “party” in the title of a song, there was always some undertow pulling you away from uncomplicated joy.
DMX played his voice like an instrument apart from his body. It was low and hoarse to begin with and, in pursuit of something more expressive than the words themselves, he seemed to put such strain on it that it might give out at any moment. He was prone to switching his tempo mid-bar, cramming syllables where they shouldn’t have fit, making the rhythm fall off for just a moment until you realized what he was after. X had presence, conviction, that look in his eye you could feel just from listening to him. Near the end of his debut, he speaks to God on “The Convo,” seeking forgiveness but not entirely sure he wants it. His voice rises, falls, the pitch shifts as he changes characters and leaps through time. Many rappers are Christians, and considering the frequency with which they are plucked from America’s ghettos and thrust into stardom it is unsurprising that they often believe they have God’s favor. But “God has been good to me” is less affecting from a rich man than hearing someone, possessed by their past, try to find their way to saying and meaning that very thing. By the end of the song he has committed himself to his faith, but there’s still that line from the first verse: “Thou shall not steal, but I will to eat.” Even without reading the tabloids, you listened to DMX and knew that faith wasn’t enough.
There is some solace in watching all the clips of him doing something fun like singing pop tunes or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” but it also feels like evidence is being proffered that he wasn’t the frightening man his lyrics indicate. If the simplification were true his music would have been less compelling. He wasn’t just one of these kinds of people; he was all of them. “Slippin’” narrates his reaching rock bottom after years of addiction, abuse, and his own violence. “This is that real shit, that shit that all real niggas can relate to,” he says in the outro. Rap is obsessed with “real niggas” and the concomitant belief that any rapper worth their weight has to have some link to an “authentic” street life. On “Slippin’” the realness isn’t about pride in emerging unscathed, but the lingering terror. DMX made hardcore mainstream and paved the way for the reception of Eminem’s murderous fantasies, but he would never become an idol, not like Will Smith or Jay or Drake. His edges were too rough and unlike the other crossover talents he never sanded them down to reach a bigger audience. He brought them to him. In the footage from Woodstock ’99, he provokes a sea of ruddy half-clothed white people to roar at the very first notes of “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem.” This was market power, but it wasn’t transcendence.
DMX was penitent in the way most people are, which is to say he was not penitent; he was remorseful. Many other rappers picked up on the effect of speaking to their trauma but for the opposite reasons. Being wounded proved their invincibility. 50 Cent’s “Many Men” ends by pointing out that he was shot and survived, while his enemies are dead. Pusha T boasted that his scars proved “they couldn’t kill gods.” DMX had a way with threats, but “Slippin’” doesn’t offer up the idea that his suffering proved his invulnerability. It’s a plea for help, for the space to be made better. Both stylistically and thematically, you can hear why Kendrick said he first started writing while listening to DMX and why Vince Staples points to him as a predecessor. They’re both wildly successful, but at this point they’re an undercurrent to rap’s sound. X always felt like an undercurrent, too, in spite of five number-one albums. Nobody really wanted to follow him wherever he was going.
DMX is the first rapper I recall being aware of and “Slippin’” is the first song I remember taping off the radio. I was young, maybe too young, and too lucky to really understand what he was talking about, but I knew what it meant to be scared, to lack faith in adults. We sounded, I thought, like kindred spirits. I’m less self-destructive or prone to lashing out, but, like him, I rarely shy away where there is pain or guilt. To get through what one has to get through I tend toward pressing on the bruise until I find the edge of the injury. Then I wait and watch and feel as it fades. I hope it fades.