"Yep, yep, yep . . . I don't really trust humans that much these days. Shit-fact of the matter is, I trust dogs more than I trust humans. Shit. There's nothin' like that dog love, I tell ya." That's the first important thing on the new record by DMX, so it's supposed to be full of deep wisdom and great meaning. In fact, DMX thinks this is so important that he repeats the whole thing (yeah, there's more) just a couple minutes later, same speech verbatim, about how it can't just be any dog, it has to be a pitbull, how they make good friends but even worse enemies.
This is the same thing Earl Simmons has been saying for years now: he's a dog, his Ruff Ryders crew are all dogs, "Get at Me Dog", etc. There's something to be said for his straight-ahead refusal to change his vision or his artistic scope; sadly, what is to be said is "boring". This is the record that DMX had to knock out the park, and he didn't do it. Instead, he just falls into the same trap that he has been trying to avoid for years: becoming just another show dog, grand champion in a meaningless category.
I don't mean to imply that DMX is bad at what he does, because he's always had skills. From the beginning, he's had an edge that other rappers have tried unsuccessfully to emulate, and I've liked him for it. He's built the entire Ruff Ryders stable by himself, quite an accomplishment even if no one can think of any other rappers to emerge from it except Eve, and she's on TV now and on the cover of my wife's Allure now looking like the black Reese Witherspoon except, y'know, tougher and sexier and smarter. But yeah, credit to X for rising up from those New York streets like a stray dog made good.
The reason he's been able to do that is because he carved out a personality for himself that no one else had, and that resonated with everyone. I once heard a white teenage poet growing up in a housing development say that she didn't listen to rap much, "except for DMX, 'cause he's kinda Goth, so we all like him." That hit the nail on the head-DMX was the voice of Tortured Nihilistic Thug Man. That album cover where he's all covered in blood but you don't know if it's his or someone else's? The concerts where he'd stop everything to have a painful heart-to-heart with the same God who'd obviously left him to grow up poor and unloved and angry as Satan? That's straight out the Goth handbook, and combined with his whole Dog persona (god backwards get it get it?) gave him a vantage point that went beyond Tupac's (fake, to me) "Sensitive Thug" persona into "Dangerously Psychotic Yet Why Aren't We All Like This What Does He Know That We Don't He's Suffering for All of Our Sins" territory.
Which was cool, but he drove it into the ground, until last year's "What I Be" single, which I thought was one of the best things of last year, just DMX barking out all the shitty things that ghetto life has to offer a young black man, nerves and teeth bared, but still somehow hopeful against all odds that maybe things might change. So I had high hopes for where he was going next. I thought we might be in for one of hip-hop's new central texts, a piece of Fuck-It-All Majesty.
THAT is why I'm so pissed that Grand Champ means basically nothing at all. I'm not sure that was his intention; he claims that "I go through what I go through / So you don't have to" on "My Life", which is the big argument for gangsta rap in the first place, and follows that by asking God, "Give me the strength to rebuke the devil / Give me the speech so the word is heard on all levels", which is the big argument for DMX's career. But then he commits the big artistic sin of so-called "saviors" everywhere: he refuses to die for our sins.
This is clear on the first big single, "Where the Hood At". Over a horn-driven Tuneheadz track with enough bounce to it, DMX starts out the song by bravely dissing homosexuals: "Last I heard ya niggas was havin' sex / With the same sex / I show no love / To homo thugs", among other unpleasantries. What year is it that we have to hear shit like this? 1987 on an Ice-T record? 1939 in Germany? The Middle fucking Ages? No, I'm sure X thinks he's repping his hood something royal with this weak stuff, but he's not-he's just sounding a little desperate and sad.
(Later in the same song he yells at a "pussy" MC and tells him to hold his dick while some other guy sucks it, but then tells him to not come near him, but then says, "I beat my dick and bust up in your eye / So you can see me comin'". This is not the first time that rappers have invoked ambiguous violent homosexual imagery, legacy of the jailhouse and all that, but damn it's got to set a record for Unintentional Speculation Invitation. I mean, if he's willing to do all that, why is he so upset?)
That's all Grand Champ is: a bid for street cred, a hope that DMX is still relevant to the streets five albums into the game. It's a selfish record, a me-first record, a record that exists purely to make DMX feel like a tough guy. He gets to brag about how hard-ass he is, how he can bite whoever he wants, but that's as far as he cares about anything else in the entire world. If he ever had any other ambitions, they're hereby cancelled; this is 75 minutes of Earl Simmons telling everyone who's not in the Ruff Ryders crew (in the particularly prescient title of one song) "F*** Y'all".
Which is, I guess, not really an argument against it ultimately. If you want to just take this as a gangsta rap record, maybe you won't be disappointed. "Untouchable" is a pretty hot track, with nice electropimp production by Tony Pizarro 4 The Final Level and relatively sprightly guest raps (especially from Sheek) and some soul from Syleena Johnson on the chorus; "Dogs Out" rides a subpar Kanye West track in an okay enough manner; if you like 50 Cent, he shows up in his typically unemotional uncharismatic way on "Shot Down". The best guest shots are on "We're Back", when Eve steps up nicely and Jadakiss brings it home ("Jada is the nice guy / Kiss is the monster / D-Block and Double R / Is my sponsor").
Maybe that's the key here. Once all my expectations were gone, this started to sound better to me. You can get down to "Rob All Night (If I'm Gonna Rob)" (dig those parentheses!) if you can ignore the rampant misogyny and homophobia and thuggery, because Rockwilder cooks up a great robotic track for it and X steps up to it: "I drop off slugs like packages from UPS / You run when you see X." It's nice to hear a No I.D. production on "We Go Hard"-I've been waiting for this guy to break big for like eight or ten years now, and he works the sample of Ruby Andrews' "Didn't I Fool You" like Nike works foreign teenagers. And then this slides right into "We 'Bout to Blow", which is energetic like the Rocky theme and kinda fun. As long as you have your "Evil Things Dudes Say" filter on, it sounds great!
There are a couple of stabs at having a real thought on Grand Champ here, but they're buried at the end, and they're kinda half-assed. "The Rain" just sprays some general life-sucks find-peace-with-the-Lord lyrics for three minutes and change, but has the same amount of momentum as it does conviction. He does the booty-call thing on "Don't Gotta Go Home", but he doesn't mean it, and neither does Monica, whose pretty/empty chorus equals zero. "The Prayer V" is the least humble prayer ever, a big shoutout to a Jesus who apparently spends all his time making sure life is easy for Earl Simmons. And how you gonna have Patti LaBelle on a Jesus track and turn it into an unlistenable kitchen-sinker with a Biz Markie sample competing with her voice? Well, that's "Thank You", and it's a mess, dammit.
"Ayo Kato" is about as interesting as things are going to get, a Latin-hop jam about X's dead homeboy with an Indian-ish flute thing and handclaps that shows real fire and heart. Had this record had a couple more jams like this, I'd be more inclined to treat Grand Champ as seriously as I wanted to originally. And I still hold out hope that DMX has one more great record in him, that he can leave all his hard posturing aside and get to what's difficult: the truth, the real, the deep. Like I said, this isn't really an awful record, just one that sounds better when you don't listen too closely. And that isn't a very high recommendation. Not to be too cheesy, but it's all bark and no bite.