“The shit I see every day brings tears to my eyes/ How I holla at my niggas brings ears to my cries”
DMX’s opening bars on LL Cool J’s “Fuhgidabowdit” summate one of an artist’s most important duties. For all the armchair A&R-ing we do while talking about what makes a great artist, the answer is very simple: be relatable. In a suffering society, that often means sharing pain with the millions who are also “finding meaning from their suffering,” like he famously expressed on “Slippin.”
Those who related to DMX’s struggles are the same people who are calling him their all-time favorite artist in the wake of his tragic death at the age of 50. To them, he became the greatest soon after he gained national recognition with his first two albums, snarling over Swizz Beatz and Dame Grease production with the kind of fury that could only be a defense mechanism for immense pain.
X was brave enough to delve into his discontent on It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot records like “Look Thru My Eyes,” “Let Me Fly,” and “The Convo.” To this day, his lyrics grip listeners who are similarly pondering, “Am I born to lose, or is this just a lesson?” We’ll never know the true answers in this life, but DMX, like so many of us, still sought them, and he shared the lessons he learned in his music.
No matter how much money is in one’s bank account, there’s pain that some of us can’t outrun. Based on what many of his close friends have expressed, it seems like that was the case for X.
For him, there was no movie-like redemption arc, but he fought his demons until the end, and the way he chronicled his darkness helped many people navigate their way to the proverbial light.
Few of us can relate to million-dollar bank accounts and other celebrity accoutrements, but we all have our moments when simply getting through the day is our biggest challenge. DMX dealt with that struggle on a world stage. His bare honesty and devotion to self held a mirror to the world and forced everyone to reconcile their own trauma through his battles. We don’t always see movie stars and multi-platinum artists stay true to themselves after success, but X did. He had the humility to shirk all the pretension and protection that celebrity offers and present his bare self in his work and public persona. He had the courage to handle all the meanspirited comments about his low moments without publicly resenting the hecklers for their mistreatment. Instead, he prayed for us every chance he got.
Irv Gotti, the industry maven who brought him to Def Jam, understood DMX’s power early, noting in the Backstage documentary that he “epitomizes the have-nots.” But X lived life like he didn’t acknowledge society’s “have and have-not” demarcation. As Swizz Beatz noted in an emotional tribute to his friend, X had no problem giving of himself and eating with people experiencing homelessness. Most rap icons of his stature are ever-image conscious, but he once took social media advice from a woman next to him on a plane. There’s a random video circulating of him at a wedding, joyfully dancing with other attendees. How the hell he got there is a mystery, but based on so many of the stories that are coming out, he had innumerable chance encounters like that.
It seems almost counterintuitive that an artist so immediately evocative took the long road through the industry, but he didn’t reach national acclaim until he was 27. He was rapping in the early-to-mid ‘90s (he once tried to battle Tupac) but it wasn’t his time. Despite the struggle he had making a name for himself, he never tried to compromise. You won’t see any unearthed videos of him with a different name, rapping in a completely different style. He stayed him, navigating the rough industry waters and dealing with his demons. After fans’ fatigue with the gloss of the “shiny suit era,” the game fell in his lap, and he was ready to spill from his life and times.
In a poignant segment of last year’s Ruff Ryders Chronicles, X surmised, “There are a few people in me that get me through life. I wouldn’t want you to know anything about those people.” All due respect to him, he didn’t do a great job of hiding the totality of who he is, but that’s why we love him.
Most artists dream of gaining a wide-spanning fanbase, and they try to engineer such devotion. DMX earned his by simply being himself. His discography runs the span of moods, from aggressive, to agonizing, to doleful, to thankful, to romantic and lustful. It’s as if he poured his day’s experience on the page, and what he felt is what we got. There are those who love X for intense, boisterous raps like “Ruff Ryders Anthem” and “What’s My Name,” while others identify with “What These Bitches Want” or “How’s It Going Down,” where he explores his romantic dealings. And of course, there’s the relatable struggle that’s apparent throughout his music.
Yes, there are some horrorcore-adjace lyrics about rape and hateful terms that wouldn’t fly from a new artist in 2021, but for many, they’re offset by universal sentiments like, “Either let me fly or give me death.” DMX’s catalog is a resolute statement that you’ll need to be a little bit of everything to survive this world. And you’ll still need to pray.
We revere many celebrities because they give us what we want: a perfectly curated escape from reality. But some, like X, give us a full frontal reminder that we can’t run from our painful realities. We can only learn to live with them. Contrary to popular belief, the so-called voiceless aren’t actually silent. Martin Luther King Jr. once called riots the “language of the unheard.” Poor communities are filled with people unleashing their own individual uprisings on the world, lashing out against substandard social conditions and expressing their discontent in a way that causes people to ignore their humanity. DMX’s music spoke for all sides of those people. To accept him is to accept them, unknowingly or not.
To understand “Get At Me Dog” is to understand “Slippin.” The rawness of him rhyming “Rob and I steal, not ‘cause I want to, ‘cause I have to” is tied to his admission on “Slippin” that “Group homes and institutions prepared my ass for jail/ They put me in a situation forcin’ me to be a man/ When I was just learnin’ to stand without a helping hand.” And while few of us have lived an existence as fraught as his, we can relate to living through moments we’re not quite ready for. For some, that’s life itself. But beyond merely reflecting on struggle, X expressed the resilience of trying to derive purpose from our trials, and using them to encourage others.
After taking us through a gauntlet of emotion, he sought to pray for anyone who related too deeply to his pain. His faith never veered into the dogma and preachiness that so many strict Christians radiate. He didn’t want to determine how someone lived their life, but merely sought to give them the strength to live theirs to the best of their ability. After all, that’s all he was seeking himself.
The adage is that the only guarantee in life is death. The significations of societal success that we chase are all arbitrary and bound to circumstance. There are some people lucky enough to accrue immense wealth and accolades in their chosen industries, but there are many more who define success in terms of simply doing your best to navigate everyday obstacles — and getting back up even when you feel like you can’t. There’s victory in resilience.
In an industry of smoke and mirrors, one that repackages the fantasy of upward mobility until the idea becomes boring, X was an outlier. His music demonstrates that life is no ladder, so the idea of reaching the so-called top is a misnomer. Our time here is a winding path, full of untold obstacles. And then it ends. The only hope artists can have is that along the way, their journey meant something to someone else.
During a scene in Backstage, X noted, “I only see a short time that I have their ear, their undivided attention, [and] I wanna take advantage.” He was likely talking about making the most of his concert set, but that mentality expands into his artistry in general. He didn’t get to be the old seer, passing on his wisdom and gospel to new generations of people as the first rapper-turned-pastor. But because he was brave enough to express his pain in his music, his catalog will do that for him.