Craig Jenkins contributed to this article.
Rap isn’t planning on retiring anytime soon. There are dozens more beloved singers who aren’t doing as well as Jay-Z or Nas, veterans renowned as much for the contents of their investment portfolios as their recordings these days. Everyone’s hits run out eventually; either you’re ready for it or you’re back to trying to make ends meet. That collapse can be imperceptible in a field known for false claims and extravagant spending. Perhaps your favourite rapper begins to sell unusual items during public appearances, utilising social media to advertise weight-loss supplements, presenting motivational seminars, or appearing in charming ads for local businesses. These awkward interactions are frequently amusing, but they seldom end well. Your negotiation power decreases as your audience loses interest. What follows is rarely pleasant. We make a great deal about sending flowers to artists, and we should, but love doesn’t keep the lights on.
Beyond the feel-good memories we experience as viewers from the Verzuz battles born of the epidemic, the importance of the Verzuz battles born of the pandemic resides in reconnecting artists with fans who have dispersed in the years after the performers’ commercial peak. It’s a place where a musician can show us what they’ve been up to while also reminding us that we care about them. According to Swizz Beatz, DMX was inspired to record a new album in the days following his Verzuz last summer. It had been nearly a decade since his last official studio album (excluding the choppy, unofficial compilation Redemption of the Beast, released against the artist’s wishes in 2015), a period marked by sporadic guest appearances, financial difficulties, an upsetting episode of Iyanla, Fix My Life, and concerning arrests. DMX wanted to show that he still had something to say, that he could claim his status as a 50-year-old survivor, and that he could compete with his peers and successors once more. Swizz was repaying the man who helped him get dressed.
Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” was not only DMX’s first successful beat, but it was also Swizz’s first hit, launching a hit parade that has kept the Bronx-born beat-maker afloat ever since. However, in the aughts, when X was making headlines for everything but music, the two drifted apart. New York hip-hop was evolving, and the artist whose first three albums went platinum in 18 months was lagging behind. You might not recall the dodgier bits of the Grand Champ and Year of the Dog, but he was still good for a hit… Again, albums were released, but “Get It on the Floor,” “Where the Hood At?”, and “Lord Give Me a Sign” remained popular. Off-peak tracks like Redemption of the Beast’s Freeway collaboration “Where You Been?” and “What They Don’t Know” from 2012’s Undisputed revealed that all DMX needed was a good label and a producer who understood his talents and approach.
Exodus, DMX’s new album, is posthumous by circumstance but not by design; Swizz Beatz stated in a private listening session earlier this week that the album was ready long before X’s untimely death this spring. (Swizz revealed to Complex that his sole post-production influence was cutting tracks.) The visitors are persons with whom X had hoped to collaborate. He had every intention of our hearing these tunes. This isn’t always the case with a posthumous rap release, where records are often cobbled together from bits and pieces of what was left behind, and the ambitions of an executive producer with too much dip on their chip result in strange pairings between deceased artists and living producers and performers who may never have met. Biggie met Korn on a postmortem album, and we learned what 2Pac sounded like over Eminem rhythms. X isn’t pushed out of his comfort zone in Exodus. It attracts prominent persons into the orbit of the late Yonkers star.
Exodus is the sound of rekindled passions and reunited companions. X is scraping the rust away. Swizz Beatz is balancing boisterous ’90s street rap, smooth R&B, stadium-rap bombast, and current minimalist boom bap on a precarious balance. The most raucous tunes harken back to the Ruff Ryders’ glory days. Up top, X reunites with his former labelmates the LOX on “That’s My Dog,” proving that the still-smoking chemistry of last summer’s “Bout Shit” wasn’t a fluke. On “Dog’s Out,” a follow-up to Tha Carter V’s Swizz collab “Uproar,” Lil Wayne is in remarkable form, skating smoothly across an East Coast production once again. Swizz has been teasing a song featuring Jay-Z, Nas, and DMX since the battle with Timbaland was regarded as the inspiration for Verzuz, and it surfaces now without the Jadakiss vocals we heard in a 2017 clip, but it’s no less potent. (Nas takes it and runs with it, making up for saying things like “I’m Coinbase’d, literally bitcoin Scarface” on DJ Khaled’s “Sorry Not Sorry,” where he and Jay previously clashed.) In every situation, DMX holds his own, however he isn’t quite at the level where he could challenge Jay like he did 20 years ago on classics like Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood’s “Blackout,” and Busta Rhymes’ “Why We Die.”
The rush of imaginative threats of violence over aggressive beats fades as the album progresses, but the emotional intensity rises. Swizz’s pop-rap prowess and X’s gift for making particular personal tragedies appear universal collide in this track. “Skyscrapers,” a song that has been floating around in some form since at least 2012, is the ideal match for DMX’s tortured perseverance in his deep cuts — and the rare occasion when removing Kanye West from a song results in a more soulful one. “Take Control” is similar to “It’s All Good” and “What These Bitches Want,” an extremely sexual “song for the ladies” that borders on outright offensiveness. But thanks to a lovely hook, this time borrowed from Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” it sneaks into your good graces. (Yes, the sample was a significant part of the publication budget.) Exodus stings since retracing his ways seems to re-energize DMX. Swizz notes that his friend had at times referred to this album as his last, either voicing an eerie foreboding or a serious commitment to disappearing into gospel music in the years to come, as was the rapper’s stated intention in his final days, though it was the groundwork for a new career path, not the unexpected end of the road.
DMX tightens up flows and figures out how to make the most out of a gruffer, less nimble instrument in Exodus. It’s not nearly as sharp as the classics from the 1990s, but it makes a couple albums from the 2000s appear fat. And it’s a huge step up from 2010s projects like the Mixtape and the Greatest Hits With a Twist compilations, on which the rapper rerecorded his oldies a decade before Taylor Swift did. Exodus is a compendium of everything we’ll miss now that DMX is gone, especially when X lets his guard down and opens up about the aftermath from a wild past and the wasted opportunities to get closer to his children that haunt him at night.
He was meant to mature into a grizzled, hardscrabble elder, sharing how he climbed back from the brink, how to restore balance when our lives are out of whack, and how to avoid the traps of the streets, the party scene, and the music industry. The hard-won advice squeezed from tragedy, the soul-searching honesty, can be heard in “Walking in the Rain” and “Letter to My Son (Call Your Father).” It’s excruciating not knowing where DMX will take his art next. Keep an eye on your heroes, especially during difficult times. Unsubscribe from music’s ageism. When you’re being washed, you’ll want someone to listen to your concerns, no matter how far away that may seem. The gift never goes away, but it does need to be nurtured from time to time. And we can’t nurture our finest poets if we put them out to pasture in their middle years. This was something DMX appeared to recognise right away. In “Hood Blues,” he states, “I ain’t 50 years old for nothing.” He was well aware that he had here to lead.