Favorite Tracks: “Hood Blues (featuring Conway, Benny the Butcher and Westside Gunn),” “Walking in the Rain (featuring Nas, Exodus Simmons and Denaun)”
My experience with the late, legendary Yonkers rapper DMX is somewhat limited, confined, until recently, to memories of high school locker room pump-up tracks and the occasional mention of his name in tabloids. That is not to say I misunderstand the scope of his influence, the tragedy and triumph of his origin, nor the sheer caliber of rapper he once was. To emerge from a broken home and system as raw and talented as X, at a time when his contemporaries were sanding the rough edges off their work in response to changing tastes and the shocking deaths of two of the genre’s biggest stars, is truly extraordinary. After a meteoric rise, a decade-plus of uniquely honest and aggressive records, and many stumbles along the way, the life of Earl Simmons is a fascinating arc to trace. His appeal stemmed from an uncontrollable inner fire, one that forged diamonds as often as it lashed out to burn him and others. His legacy is complex, deserving of celebration, and absolutely let down by this tired, unfocused album.
It would be only a bit hyperbolic to say that I hate this record. I’ve written before about the fine line posthumous albums walk, and that more get it wrong than get it right. Whether the artist in question had a long career to condense into a fitting send off, or a short one that must be extrapolated, creating art on behalf of a departed artist is an unforgiving task. EXODUS is another unfortunate attempt that falls on the wrong side of the fence, despite steward Swizz Beatz claiming almost all of it was conceived and recorded prior to his untimely demise. I wish that weren’t true, as it suggests X had little left to give and less understanding of what to even give.
It’s instructive when a posthumous album drops to revisit where the artist began. DMX was endlessly energized on IT’S DARK AND HELL IS HOT, his barking, staccato cadences always kept him firmly on top of the beat. His fire was evident from the first verse on “Intro,” through the classic “Ruff Ryders Anthem,” and the gripping street tales of tracks like “Damien” and “Look Thru My Eyes.” By comparison, EXODUS sounds like X drained of his fire. It’s still there, and I’m sure it was until the very end, but it’s dimmed. It’s impossible to sustain the sort of trauma and hunger that gave life to IT’S DARK AND HELL IS HOT, and nor would you hope to recreate those circumstances. 24 years in, it’s understandable why X couldn’t reach those legendary highs, but EXODUS fails to compel at every turn. DMX struggled to find an aging version of himself he was confident in, the production is scattershot or abjectly terrible, and guests turned in requisite but uneven contributions that too often fail to meet X where he can shine.
The first half of the album is actively difficult to listen to at times, thanks in no small part to the irritating, misguided tendencies of Swizz Beatz. Swizz’ worst instinct to shout all over his productions and deliver unnecessarily busy beats is everywhere early on. His halting hook and cluttered percussion on the opener “That’s My Dog” grates on the ear, making it tough to enjoy reasonably hard verses from DMX and fellow professional raspers The LOX. Album selling point “Bath Salts” is laced with amelodic sirens which waste the second Jay-Z and Nas reunion of the year. In more capable hands, these two titans could’ve been guiding lights for the track and album; both encountered speed bumps aging gracefully in rap, but mostly succeeded, trading the intensity of past work for luxurious, measured deliveries and elevated subject matter. Instead, the tempo is wrong, no one can generate any momentum and the track doesn’t merit a revisit. In another review, two examples might be enough, but the hits keep coming on EXODUS. “Money Money Money” is honestly one of the worst beats I’ve ever heard, full stop. It’s a weird, sped-up Halloween dollar store soundtrack, undone further by the absolute lack of chemistry between X and guest Moneybagg Yo. The first half is capped by “Skyscrapers,” where DMX and Bono of all people are scaffolded by an unholy amalgamation of pop rap rhythms, DJ Mustard chants, tinny percussion and a cheap piano. It really sounds like the first beat a kid with a fresh copy of FL Studio might produce using only the free trial sounds.
The second half picks things up and saves the album from being an outright embarrassment. The production on “Hood Blues” finally lets the artists breathe, and a classic Griselda triumvirate assist sets X up for one of his strongest verses, capped by what should’ve been the mission statement for the album, X growling, “I ain’t 50 for nothing.” “Take Control” is a clumsy attempt at a slow jam, featuring horny uncle energy from Snoop and X, but this is a more forgivable sin, given similar attempts appear on so many albums by otherwise street-oriented rappers. Eventually “Walking in the Rain” and “Letter to My Son” recapture some of the orator’s magic that made previous releases so arresting. It’s not enough to save the whole, and the whipsaw changes in tone are jarring across a project that tries to be too many things at once, but the tracks are beautiful and heartfelt in a way that actually feels like an appropriate, somber farewell for a troubled, brilliant man.