DMX was hip-hop’s newest miscreant in 1998, snarling into an arena that has since lent itself to bling-bling blathering and bad hooks. He was a ravenous entertainer and emcee when he stalked the streets and radio airwaves with “Get At Me Dog”, ready to prove his bark as sharp as his bite after waiting several years to get at a mainstream mic. Known as a DJ in Yonkers, where he was raised, he had made some ripples before he pawed out of obscurity from his appearances on DJ Clue tapes and cameos with Mase and L.L. Cool J, among others. His brooding brown eyes, intimidating staccato flow and the hardcore weight of his material revitalized the legacy of edgy cockiness and lyrical precision that had made Tupac made famous.
The testosterone-filled pseudo-Rotweiller offered insightful rhymes about the mishaps in his life and slight glimpses into his hard-knock life with intimate, if puzzling, open letters to God and the world. He seemed oblivious to the contradictions of God and violence, or God and promiscuity—but because he was so distinctly himself and seemed quite content to fluctuate between DMX (the alter ego named after a digital music machine) and Earl Simmons, his contradictions were not seen as glaring examples of him fronting for his fans. He was simply accepted as a hybrid of sensitivity, raw passion and ruthlessness. But as success was lavished on him, and each of his albums went on to enter at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, there was a shift in DMX. Not necessarily for better or for worse, but it was a keen sense of off-kilter, unbalanced material.
When he is Earl Simmons, the eerie music stops. He wants to talk to the audience for a minute. The serious energy of his tone means it’s going to be deep—considerably deeper than rhyming about being harder than every other emcee on the planet. Though he moved between both personalities flawlessly on his first two albums, by the time . . . And Then There Was X was released it was hard to take the fluctuation of his personal conversations with his savior seriously when coupled with the outrageous, relentless barking and growls that overwhelmed much of his material.
During the four years he has penetrated the mainstream, he’s remained as insightful as he was during his rough days as the misunderstood emcee with his dog and only friend, Boomer. The problem DMX/Earl Simmons faces now is defining, in the words of his first single, “Who We Be”. If he is the dog, then he should be true to his canine qualities. But it must be hard to do that after selling 15 million albums and living the life he once knew nothing about.
There is evidence in The Great Depression that DMX is closer to being the man he really is. He has stuck with the formula, to embody the oxymoron of being in love with the Lord and still going off on his street rage ramblings. The recurrence of God and Religion on DMX’s fourth album makes it a safe bet to assume that Earl Simmons will soon go the way of Mason “Mase” Betha and forsake hip-hop in favor of the pulpit. But with this sporadic effort, fans of hip-hop’s first dog find him sharpening his teeth on a few crisply produced tracks from newcomer Black Key and mentally meandering over several tracks about haters who just want to be like X.
Whether he is the dog or the man, DMX still spits fury like he did on his first few albums—the passion is just misdirected. The shallow delivery on songs like “Shorty Was Da Bomb” and “Ima Bang” prove that DMX no longer has a lot to be angry about. He wants to reminisce on what he felt like when he was still yearning for stardom. Quite simply, the hunger is gone. If canines tend to run in packs, DMX is now the lone, mangy mutt, barking at passing cars and foaming at the mouth at whatever crosses his path. The man who once symbolized the darker aspects of street life and revitalized hardcore rap, if only for a few years, is now an illusion. At the crossroads between the performer and the man, DMX can’t seem to decide which he prefers.
The pulsating tracks “Who We Be” and “We Right Here” are great dance tracks, but they certainly aren’t DMX at his most passionate. They are, at best, flashes of DMX reminiscing on that eager artist who had enough pent-up aggression from a harsh life to spew anecdotal lyrics for days.
On The Great Depression, DMX just wants to be heard and understood. He appears to merge his fury and pain best on “I Miss You”, which features the lovely lilting voice of Faith Evans. He speaks sincerely about his savior and eulogizes his grandmother in the sharp, touching way only Earl Simmons can. But the most depressing thing about this album is that DMX’s passion for rhyming seems to have been eclipsed by his success. “I speak for the meek and the lonely, weak and the hungry, speak for the part of the street that keep it ugly”, he rhymes, but it’s unclear on his latest effort if DMX, the machine, can truly speak for his original constituents. If this album is any indication of what the future holds for DMX, he might be better off delivering some of his rhymes for a congregation instead of pursuing a hip-hop career.