By Zeke Tweedie
In 1998, a 27 year-old DMX released his debut album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, and became a star. The album, along with his next four, would debut at the top of the Billboard 200 and establish X as a real presence in New York, and in hip-hop. And a presence he was. His tough demeanor, realness, and most of all, his deep, gravelly, unmatched voice belonged to a man who was bigger than life. On It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, though, X doesn’t seem to embody something from above, as much as something from below–or within. The album is full of stories of violence and crime, but is not about those things. Rather, it is about the man himself, who bares himself in a way rarely seen in any medium. At times, he embraces this violence, reaching to the depths of depravity (“X is Coming”), before flexing his storytelling, alongside a deep self-awareness, when he is deceived by a devilish admirer on “Damien:” “the snake, the rat, the cat, the dog / how you gone’ see ‘em if you livin’ in the fog.” Later, he turns to God, in the climactic two tracks, “The Prayer” and “The Convo.” It is here where X’s voice shines brightest, in a prayer set acapella on the first track, before reaching a lower register on the second, as God speaks back. It is also here where the various emotions that have floated through the album peak. In track 4, X asks us to “feel the pain, feel the joy / of a man who was never a boy.” And now we feel it. On “The Prayer” and “The Convo,” he indulges his profound feelings of pain, fear, love, and hope, revealing his most personal self to God and to the world. If not always humane, this album is deeply human– and the man was no different. DMX was a victim and a champion of life, often at the same time, but was always real, and always spread joy wherever he went. He died last Friday at 50, a mortal man, who knew too much about life.