November 8, 2001

Back to the Streets

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When Earl “DMX” Simmons first broke out in 1998, his innovative gritty style and signature bark rejuvenated hardcore rap. In a time when the posthumous recordings of 2Pac were all that kept listeners buying albums, he showed the world that it was possible to pull off a thug-life anthem without carbon-copying Shakur’s endearing beats.

Both 2Pac and DMX drew on their inner-city backgrounds for songs, and both interweaved religious influences with gangsta dissing. Although no one has since reached the depth or profundity of 2Pac’s work, DMX showed promise as a rapper with enough sense and compassion to build a body of similarly meaningful work.

But even diehard fans began to wonder when Dark Man X stopped putting out music and started basking in the limelight. A New Year’s Day 2000 gig and two back-to-back action flicks for producer Joel Silver — Romeo Must Die and Exit Wounds — transformed his career into one long press tour. Had DMX forgotten what made him great? Would he become yet another “money-cash-hos” rapper with too much gold and too little content?

His new album The Great Depression gives the answer: a resounding no. Going back to his roots and even acknowledging his little vacation (“I can go away for a minute, do some other shit but bounce right back”), his flair for words and searing beats are still here, with even more bite than ever. Keeping true to his style, DMX begins with a poetry track called “Sometimes,” where it’s already obvious that he has as many answers now as he did before his fame: “Sometimes I wonder what life’s about/ Sometimes I wonder why the lights are out/ Sometimes I wonder why I like to shout/ Sometimes I wonder what the lies are about.”

And so he sets the tone for the rest of the album, painting a portrait of himself as a tortured soul arisen from the ashes of indulgence. Even the album artwork, depicting an industrial wasteland — complete with a run-down Rolls-Royce — makes it clear that DMX has escaped from his most recent phase intact and wiser. He shows his love for the streets in several songs, most notably on “I’ma Bang:” “I speak for the meek and the lonely, weak and the hungry.”

DMX has always been willing to experiment. He is even more daring on this outing, drawing from a wealth of influences to enrich his poetry and music. “Bloodline Anthem” is a curious song, part remnant of And Then There Was X’s excessive rock undertones and part advertisement for his upcoming Bloodline Records label.

The outstanding “When I’m Nothing” has the sound and excitement of the best Jackson Five singles, mixing old-school pop sounds with Marvin Gaye-era synth hooks and the vocals of Stephanie Mills. When DMX looks back through history for inspiration and succeeds as he does here, the results sound as if they come from the golden records on the walls of Motown.

On the other end of the spectrum, if 2Pac’s “Dear Mama” is one of the most touching tribute rap songs ever written, DMX’s “I Miss You” is a fitting companion piece. Featuring Faith Evans, the song is a soulful ode dedicated to X’s late grandmother, to whom the entire album is dedicated. “You used to say ‘Don’t worry, it’s gonna be okay’ but it ain’t/ It’s like when you left, you took the Lord with you/ Why couldn’t I come when He came to get you? Damn I really miss you” are just some of the quietly powerful lyrics, supplemented by a recurring variation of “Amazing Grace.” “I Miss You” is the rare DMX song where not one bark or “woof” can be heard in the background; while the gimmick was certainly original a few years ago, the silence of X’s dawg is even more effective on this song.

Depression features the return of another DMX staple: Damien, his evil alter-ego, which arguably had the best of him for the past couple of years. DMX, however, returns triumphant, declaring “Now I see you for who you are/ It’s like I know you, so I can’t trust you as far as I can throw you.” The lyrics follow his conventional format for the Damien series, alternating dialogue between the two as Eminem and Dr. Dre effectively did for “Guilty Conscience.” The melody is another risk on DMX’s part, drawing on Latin influences to underscore the urgency of his predicament.

DMX’s blazing trail of sadness and glory begins to close in “The Prayer IV,” on which he affirms his enduring humanity where many other rappers would rather assert their invincibility: “Father God, I am just learning how to pray/ Bear with me/ First I thank you for the life of everyone that’s here with me/ Then I thank you for the love you give me/ Why? I don’t know/ I don’t deserve it, and it hurts inside.”

Archived article by Andy Guess