As is typical when a prominent person passes away, the media this weekend was flooded with encomia and tributes to DMX’s indefatigable star power, which didn’t recede with time. As late as 2012, when he put out his final full-length album, Undisputed, X could still yelp and yammer and grizzle and grovel with the best of them.
He was a human thunderbolt with all the rumbly intensity that entails. By the same token, he was thoughtful and abundantly prayerful.
X only lived to be 50, but in that time he incurred many great losses. Every posthumous appraisal of his life has focused on the victories; songs like “Ruff Ryders Anthem” and “Party (Up in Here)” that will, to quote the Gospel of Matthew, “endure unto the end.” But let’s be careful not to misrepresent DMX to the uninitiated. There was more to him than an MTV Jams video montage would have you believe.
From his early demos to his iconic debut album, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, to his Grand Champ days, DMX made amazing songs that would never become hits or be featured on a greatest hits compilation. Here are DMX’s 15 greatest deep cuts.
In 1991 — before he discovered religion, before canine iconography was central to his brand, before his laryngeal cartilage calcified into something gravel-like — DMX was 20 years old and a great impressionist. On “Three Little Pigs,” off of his first demo, he skillfully mimics the sure-footed cadence of Rakim. This was one of several DMX songs that got the young rapper noticed by The Source, the inner sanctum of hip-hop journalism at the time, and its Unsigned Hype column.
From a personnel standpoint, Grand Champ is unusually eclectic for a DMX album. There are beats by Rockwilder, No I.D., and a mustard stain-era Kanye West — none of whom had worked with X previously. But Dame Grease brings it all home on “We Bout to Blow,” a jumpy, brass-spiked banger.
On “Slippin‘” X gets a brutal, divinely bequeathed reality check: “To live is to suffer.” That is the very last thing anyone struggling with suicidal ideation wants to hear, but X takes it in stride. “Angel” is noteworthy for another, much sadder reason: X addresses his addiction directly. That makes the song a particularly tough listen in light of his death.
The second track off of Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, “Bring Your Whole Crew” spares no one, not even the saintly volunteers at Red Cross. DMX and PK — who’s channeling Ice Cube — rifle through somebody’s stash spot; they’re like cannibalistic tunnel rats, except they come bearing arms. X warns them preemptively that they will be routed upon arrival at the scene.
X and JAY-Z couldn’t have been more different — one was a bare knuckle brawler, the other a primly dispassionate suit-and-tie type — but their chemistry was apparent from “Money, Cash, Hoes.” Then came the regal “Why We Die,” a little-noticed, Busta Rhymes album cut that should’ve been Anarchy’s first single. It shines with the pomp and circumstance of glorious war.
Bongos and woodwinds and chicken pickin’ guitar licks. The funkiest song on Grand Champ is also inestimably, ineluctably sad. Clearly X was affected by the 2003 murder of Rudy “King Kato” Rangel, a Chicago gang kingpin, who was friends with the rapper.
“Keep Your Shit the Hardest” is one of the only DMX songs with a soupcon of New Orleans flavor. Much like “Down for My Niggas,” which postdates this song by about two years, “Keep Your Shit the Hardest” has a demonic horn sample. It ices the listener out with its frigid stare.
This easy, breezy piano number would be nothing with the unflappably sassy Mary J. Blige, but X is served well by the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul’s presence. Who is this man with the deft, pigeon-toed strut? What he has done with DMX, whose defining characteristic was a kind of shambolic anti-swagger — a tendency to dart in and out of the beat?
On the head-knocker “School Street” DMX pays breathless tributes to his childhood associates from Yonkers (Mike Coleman, James Welden, Nick Styles…). With its frisky marching-band rhythm, “School Street” is a rowdy opener to DMX’s toned-down fourth album, The Great Depression.
“Ready to Meet Him” is similar to “The Convo,” except it leads with an acapella monologue and concludes with the tinkling wisp of a flute. In between is another conversation with God, this one covering the Book of Exodus. (“I’m really tryna win, so where do we start?” “Thou shall not steal.” “But what if he stole from me?” “Thou shall not kill.” “But what if he’s tryin’ to kill me?”)
And you thought Swizz Beatz — a party hardy extrovert, always haggling over maximum capacity in the DJ booth — was uncomfortable with silence. On “The Omen”, the sequel to the classic storytelling track “Damien“, he applies dead air intentionally and strategically to create a horror-like atmosphere of dread. As for Marilyn Manson, his evilly purring hook on “The Omen” might be the best thing he ever did.
The most explicit, disturbing, ethically challenged song in Earl’s discography, and it features a children’s choir. Only DMX would use children as fungible human props in his tale of rape, revenge, and poultry factory farming (“I’ll pluck you like a chicken,” he raps in the second verse).
Ma$e, a somewhat wimpy soft-serve rapper whose career post-Harlem World amounted to very little, not only keeps pace with prime Jadakiss and Styles P but decidedly outraps them both? “Niggaz Done Started Something” is an iconic posse cut. Over the years, the posse cut would become a staple on DMX albums. But “Niggaz Done Started Something” still reigns as the best.
“Crime Story” is most nightmarish and immersive of X’s storytelling jawns. At no point during this classic song can we deduce what is fantasy and what is reality. It feels as though we’re drifting into psychosis right along with X, whose heavy drug use kept him up for days at a time and who may or may not have recorded “Crime Story” under stroke-defying, immunpsuppressing conditions of sleep deprivation.
“The Convo” is an extended, if disjointed, conversation with the man up above. X starts out by divulging his iniquities and transgressions, one after another, but soon he is lulled to a calmer place by God’s reassuringly stentorian voice. Dame Grease comes through with a plucky bassline; this is what Mobb Deep’s “Eye for an Eye (Your Beef Is Mine)” would sound like reimagined as a song of praise. The song the finest moment of DMX’s classic debut.
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