When I was coming up, I knew cats like the one DMX tries to portray when he rhymes. They used to cut class to smoke weed in the woods behind my middle school. Sometimes they’d catch the bus out to the suburbs, bum-rush kids, and steal their bikes. They hated their fathers, if they knew them, and cursed the authority of their mothers. When we got older, they started packing pistols to settle beefs, whether real or imagined. They had names like Crazy Shawn or Black Larry. These dudes had a lot of problems, but being human wasn’t one of them.
They called girls “bitches,” and if they were pretty boys, they took full advantage and collected honeys like key chains. But sometimes they had girlfriends for whom they bought flowers on Valentine’s Day. They laughed and told jokes, they kissed their grandmothers, and, even when it wasn’t cool anymore, some of them still had a serious thing for cartoons.
I think about them as I listen to DMX’s second offering in a year, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. Hiphop is replete with misogyny, gangsterism, and excessive violence, but in the past, those songs were always balanced by gripping, humanistic street stories. That era is swiftly approaching its end, and DMX is at the doorway, ushering it out. Flesh is an intellectually unrigorous look at the plight of the inner-city black male, a frighteningly Neanderthal view of fratricide on the streets. For DMX, it’s simple: Have gun, should kill. While the forefathers of gangsta rap like Ice Cube and KRS-One showed some awareness of the forces that caused kids to draw guns on each other, DMX shows noneor he chooses not display it. I’m inclined to believe the latter.
DMX is most concerned not with dramatizing an unfortunate saga, but with painting a flattened portrait of it. He barks his way through Flesh, and at the end of each song he comes to one of two conclusions: I’m blowing your brains out, or I’m screwing your bitch. There is no middle ground, no reasoning. It’s the extremes that preoccupy him. On “Bring Your Whole Crew,” he raps, “I got blood on my hands and there’s no remorse/I got blood on my dick ’cause I fucked a corpse.” Granted, MCs often use exaggeration to push home their point. But exactly what are we to conclude from such hyperbole, which litters this album, except that it’s nihilistic and absurd?
Even when DMX attempts to be thought-provoking, he ends up rehashing themes that other MCs have already dealt withand better. On the cut “Ready to Meet Him,” DMX imagines himself face to face with God and plays out an entire conversation. There’s only one problem: Ras Kass used the exact same concept for “Interview With a Vampire.” The only difference was that Ras Kass spoke with the devil.
As you listen to Flesh, you get the disturbing feeling that someone’s lying to you. For when DMX isn’t making wild claims, he’s exhuming clichés such as “I would tell you what I do, but then I have to kill you.” Or he’s making nonsense statements that are supposed to be clever, like “I’m that muthafucka that’ll put you to sleep while you’re sleeping.” Flesh is a bad album by a lousy MC, but then, DMX epitomizes a new era in rap wherein appearance has wholly supplanted substance.
Other MCs in this category make cameos on DMX’s album, most notably the Lox and Jay-Z on “Blackout.” While both the Lox and Jay-Z are miles ahead of DMX talentwise, both clearly understand that a tight verse is no longer necessary to put a track over the top. Even the often extraordinary Jay-Z slums on the cut.
As one of my colleagues recently noted, it’s no longer how adeptly you flow over the beat, nor even how clever your lyrics are, it’s about how you sound. But even the quality of DMX’s gruff, gimmicky rasp, which elevates him vocally, reveals a fundamental foolishness: Here is an MC who consistently brags about how real he is, all the while ridiculing the weaknesses of “fake-ass niggas.” Yet DMX’s whole claim to realness is based on the sound of his voiceit certainly isn’t based on his lyrics, which by the end of Flesh are mind-numbing at best.
You can’t necessarily blame DMX for releasing a bad album; dumb records come out all the time. His sin, harder to forgive, is the simplistic portrayal he offers of himself to the world. I once knew dudes who talked like DMX. They stole cars and tagged their names on railroad cars. They weren’t the nicest folks in the world, but they weren’t cartoons, either.CP