DMX: The Soul of a Man

Let me take your hand.

Guide me, I walk slow, but stay right beside me.

The devil’s trying to find me, hide me.

Hold up, I take that back.

Protect me and give me the strength to fight back.

–DMX, “Lord Give Me a Sign”

The fact that you know who I am is my weapon.

–DMX, DMX: The Soul of a Man

Here’s the thing about DMX. He’s always harried. Both sincere and antic, urgent and calculated, reckless and calculated, an impossible mix of raw self-expression (rendered in that distinctive voice) and repetition: whether you hear this as a desperate need to communicate or lack of imagination depends on your relationship with DMX, and you have one, whether you know it or not.

Dark Man X, also known as Earl Simmons, has long been open about this sense of conflict. It’s incorporated into his performative persona. Part Brooklyn-born gangsta, part social agitator, and part earnest man of God, X acts out his struggle incessantly. His single, “Lord, Give Me a Sign” comes with a video where shots of X wandering he desert, “Still going through it,” intercut with images of Katrina victims, the war in Iraq, and 9/11; much like his remarkable video for “Who We Be,” the combination of imagery and heartfelt lyrical delivery makes his identification with suffering almost painful in itself.

X’s latest foray into public consciousness is, of all things, a reality series. Like Lil’ Kim before him, he’s making his drama abundantly available on BET in a six-part series, DMX: Soul of a Man. But where Kim’s show followed her preparations for her recently concluded imprisonment (cleverly titled Countdown to Lockdown), X’s first episode shows him headed to jail for a traffic violation.

Everyone keeping track knows how crazy these traffic violations have gotten. In Soul of a Man‘s pilot episode, X’s road manager Ali Sammii laments, “He’s about to go in for a traffic violation, you know what I’m saying? Something so stupid.” Perhaps the most famous incident — so far, anyway — took place at JFK Airport, in 2004. DMX “posed” as an undercover FBI agent and crashed his SUV through the security gate; after working out probation for that, he broke it and served 70 days in jail in 2005. And just this year, on 28 June, he posted $25,000 bail to be released from a Westchester County prison after missing two court dates related to misdemeanor traffic violations.

The guy seems a menace, at least to himself (rumors circulate perpetually as to his drug use and “clinical” definitions of his state of mind). And to an extent, Soul of a Man suggests that such infractions, so irrational and so avoidable, are symptomatic. Repeatedly in the first episode, he’s acting out resistances against expectations: the first scene has him late for a recording session with Swizz Beats, who calls him repeatedly to track him down while X is buying treats in a convenience store: “Ooh,” he acts out for the camera, “the donuts just came in.” When the phone goes dead back in the studio, Swizz Beats uses the camera for his own performance, turning to it confidentially: “The phone cut off, perfect fucking excuse.” X’s inability to be on time seems chronic, even pathological: everyone waits for X, as he ponders, frets, resists the very process of time. “Bazookas!” he exults in the convenience store, “You get a joke and a piece a gum.”

A recurring image in Soul of a Man has him doubled in a kind of kaleidoscopic distortion, facing and not seeing himself. Soul of a Man offers several views of him, through friends and his longsuffering wife Tashera. “Marriage, relationship period,” she says, “It’s a challenge.” No kidding. As he prepares to turn himself over to authorities back in New York, to serve 40 days for the traffic violation, Ali observes, “He’s a problem by himself, he’s reckless person.”

But first, X spends a couple of days in Arizona, where he claims to have found “peace of mind.” “Coming from New York,” notes Ali, “We ain’t never seen stuff like this before,” as the camera cuts to a rattlesnake. Healing nature or metaphorical danger? Or maybe just a clich√©? “You know what brought X to AZ?” asks the ever poetic Simmons. “Peace and serenity.” And with that, he’s accosted by a couple of young white girls on horses. “What kind a gangsters are you guys?” asks one girl, she looks about 12. “You didn’t hear us rolling up on you?” X laughs good-naturedly, especially when she calls him Ja Rule, X’s notorious “enemy.” When her mom tells the girl by cell phone not to hang out with these strangers, she and her friend leave, X agreeing that her mom’s right. He is a stranger. “See ya later, Ja Rule,” the girl says over her shoulder, quite unpanicked and apparently unimpressed by the so-called gangstas and camera crew she’s discovered in the desert.

The rest of the episode tracks X’s efforts to reconcile himself to going to jail. He shoots targets with his AZ neighbor Buddy (“Buddy is one of the realest people I know,” says X, arbiter of the real), and listens closely as Buddy offers advice: “You don’t want your kids growing up without a daddy like you did.” X paces and rubs his head. This is true, and yet, he appears helpless, unable to fit the pieces of himself together. Lord, give him a sign.

Back home, a family dinner at a restaurant and brief prayer set the mood for jail the next morning. “The more you enjoy yourself, the more you don’t enjoy yourself,” worries X, taking another drink at the bar. “A toast to pain.” Outside, his eyes tear up while he contemplates the unknowable future, and he fusses some more. When he drops off his three sons at different schools the next morning, one by one they’re eager to get on with their own lives, with a couple of authority types looking askance at the man his camera crew; he’s late, again, and disrupting the order of classes. “Bitch,” he mutters, as they leave one woman’s hallway, stepping out into sunshine.

Perhaps the episode’s most startling image occurs as they ride to the courthouse, very late (his lawyer, identified as “Murray,” stands on the steps outside and suggests X’s time in jail will be extended because he’s late). He and Tashera ride in the back seat while Ali drives, on the phone, detailing their route, describing the knot of traffic that holds them. “He was stalling,” Tashera admits during a “confessional” moment. And then you see him as she prays in the car (calling for good angels to protect the car), curled up, head in her lap, understandably depressed, slowed to the point of quiet, for the first time in the 20 minutes you’ve been watching.

“Every time you go to jail,” he says as they make their way inside the courthouse through a throng of press and flashbulbs, “There’s the realization that it’s possible you may not go home, you know what I mean?” Teasers for the coming episode show X emerged triumphant, his face newly rounded, his mood considerably improved. “He’s the 45 volt battery in our backs, he’s the energy,” enthuses Ali.

You can see how his friends and family love this man: he’s surely “a challenge,” but he’s oddly compelling. This has always been the thing about X, his capacity to feel, hugely, completely, publicly. He hardly needs reality tv to exploit that about him. Unlike, say, Bobby Brown, you don’t get the sense that he (or his wife) is going to surprise you during the series. Soul of a Man is not a train wreck, and X is pretty much what you expect. He uses, pokes at, and performs his pain, again and again, and in that he is emblematic, if not exactly representative. You don’t know him. You may want to feel for him, but he feels more than enough. The question is, how did he come to this point, that his pain is so well rewarded and so marketable? Whose show is this?

DMX: Soul of a ManTrailer

RATING 7 / 10