“Who We Be” is the first DMX song I’ve ever liked. On the cut, the rapper, who’s never been mistaken for anyone’s Rakim, actually sports a novel lyrical structure, putting together a familiar portrait of black male life using only a few fragmented details: “The streets, the cops, the system, harassment/The options: get shot, go to jail, or getcha ass kicked….The release, the warning, ‘Try not to get in trouble’/The snitches, the odds, probation, parole/The new charge, the bail, the warrant, the hole.”

Of course, the real star of “Who We Be” is not DMX but the workhorse track that mobilizes his sparse litany. A guitar pulses relentlessly in the forefront, occasionally augmented by a sinister keyboard riff. Nonetheless, DMX’s frenetic, emotionally charged performance is not incidental to the song’s success.

But no one has ever accused DMX of being unemotional; he’s always been the angry man’s MC. His first three albums—1998’s It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood and 1999’s …And Then There Was X—feature DMX barking, shooting, and screwing his way through Anyghetto, U.S.A. Though each includes a few moments of reflection, these discs are all marked by a need to disrespect and dismember anything that moves—and even some things that don’t. As DMX put it on Flesh’s “Bring Your Whole Crew,” “I got blood on my hands and there’s no remorse/And got blood on my dick ’cause I fucked a corpse.” But whether playing a necrophiliac or an everyday corner boy, DMX always overflows with rage and not much else—least of all mike skills.

Listening to DMX is almost invariably a grating experience. He simply lacks the lyrical acumen to shape his anger into a refined product. DMX has been around since hiphop’s late-’80s/early-’90s golden age, yet somehow—unlike, say, Jay-Z—he possesses none of that era’s regard for craft. Even the angriest of ’80s MCs—Ice Cube and Chuck D—possessed a measure of skill that allowed them to transform their vitriol into something that went beyond barking at the audience.

Despite the criticism of pencil-necked critics like me, DMX has gained a massive following. And I’m not talking about middle-of-the-road, chart-following, Puff Daddy-listening fans, either. DMX has a deeply committed street-level—even underground—audience. In this respect, he very much resembles M.O.P., except with more record sales.

DMX’s fourth outing, The Great Depression, will undoubtedly push his sales figures even higher. It used to be that you could count on a DMX album to be a mirror image of all that was wrong with hiphop, full of unbridled violence and misogyny, shoddy MCing, and stale, simplistic production. But The Great Depression is an upgrade, at least in the last category. Several tracks on the album are even—dare I say?—credible.

“We Right Here” bangs with pounding drums and discordant keys. “Damien III” is an eerie soundscape, marked by its creepy piano riff. “School Street” bounces with frenetic energy and rock guitars. Even the pillow-soft “I Miss You” works on a purely instrumental level, setting a somber tone for DMX’s requiem to his grandmother.

But despite the step up in production quality, the album has a major flaw: its featured artist. It is hard to overstate DMX’s inability to move The Great Depression beyond a collection of a few nice tracks into the ranks of decent albums. DMX is just an awful MC, at times embarrassingly so. Take “Damien III,” the latest of a series of cuts on which DMX interacts with an evil spirit, who is performed by DMX using a different voice. It goes without saying that a man who has trouble crafting a credible flow for himself is unable to create a second style for his alter ego, who comes off about as sinister as the Great Gazoo.

Of course, most of the album is simply regular old DMX, exemplified by cuts such as “I’m a Bang,” on which the rapper continues his quest to establish himself as the most violent person on earth. “Disrespectful shit will get you hit, bitch,” he rhymes. “Fuck who you wit’, you niggaz get what you get.” Also characteristic is “Bloodline Anthem,” which asserts DMX’s dubious claim to the crown of rapdom in typical DMX fashion—with anger overflowing and craft running dry: “When I come back, c’mon dog, respect my slot/Ain’t no get in where I fit in, bitch I’m straight to the top/And whoever don’t like it, fuck you faggot.”

Things get worse when he tries to go all sensitive on us. “When I’m Nothing” attempts to mesh DMX’s gruff delivery with a lush ’80s-style track. But unlike better MCs, DMX lacks the ability to adapt his style to the track he’s given. So when presented with Stephanie Mills’ crooning, all he can do is growl thug clichés such as “I got a wife I don’t trust you bitches.” Ditto for “I Miss You,” the standard sort of repentance number that every rapper from Tupac to Jay-Z has specialized in. It takes a certain type of MC to boast about his ability to murder mass numbers of people and then pledge his love for the deceased.

There are some people in life who make careers out of doing things that in a meritocratic world they could never get by on. DMX falls into this category. Listening to many of the cuts on The Great Depression is nothing short of audio torture for someone in search of mike skills. DMX clearly has enough fire to ignite 100 passionless MCs, but he doesn’t have the light to find a decent set of lyrics. As moving as a cut like “Who We Be” is, it’s ultimately a very nice exception to an unfortunate rule: DMX has no business on anyone’s microphone. CP