Honesty should never go unappreciated in art and life. With authenticity being one of the foundational pillars on which rap culture is built, a sincere pen game often coincides with a rewarding discography. It’s part of what makes an artist connect with their listeners, forging bonds that can mirror those of friendship. On April 9th, Earl Simmons — known universally as DMX — passed away at the age of 50. He was, and will remain, one of the most unflinchingly honest writers hip-hop has ever seen.
One need only examine his tragedy-riddled origin story to glean a surface-level understanding of the adversity DMX was forced to overcome. Amidst circumstances that might have suffocated those of lesser fortitude, DMX found solace in the art of rap. The reputation he quickly forged as an emcee, battling opponents with the ferocious intensity of the dogs he so often traveled with, eventually led to an opportunity in the recording industry when he inked his first deal with Def Jam Records.
DMX at the 10th Annual ONE Musicfest in Atlanta Georgia, 2019. Prince Williams/Wireimage/Getty Images
Behind the raw talent and explosive passion stood a man haunted by his past. Thematically, that darkness became a staple characteristic, bleeding into his music and moniker alike. Early works like It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot and Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood were especially evocative in their presentation, with the latter depicting DMX doused in blood, starkly juxtaposed against a pristine white backdrop. Lyrically, X never shied away from haunting and occasionally brutal imagery. Some of his best material features harrowing and visceral depictions of violence; “X Is Coming,” “Damien,” “Bring Your Whole Crew,” and “Stop Being Greedy” are but a few examples. In his early work, X was never afraid to portray himself as a villain, painting pictures that some would deem disturbing. Still, at the center was a man with love in his heart. Love that sometimes emerged through spirituality. Other times, through simple interaction with his fans and hip-hop peers. It’s not uncommon to hear those who knew him reminiscing about his contagious joie de vivre, his ability to elicit laughter and happiness from those around him.
The idea of redemption has been explored by DMX himself, often through a religious lens. Even on his darker albums, X kept things grounded through a direct line of communication with God, seeking guidance in staying the course. Where lesser writers might have taken great liberties in sensationalizing their moral conflict, X presented both sides of the spectrum with frank honesty. That duality, ostensibly categorized as the dark and the light, became a recurring staple within his music. Even at the height of his fame — and rest assured that height was vast in scale — X never fled from the trauma he carried. His lyricism remained seeped in violent intensity, the likes of which might have rallied fighters on an ancient battlefield in a different age. Even his club bangers like the Swizz Beatz-produced classic “Get It On The Floor” found him bringing that frenzied energy, delivering threats with unquestionable conviction.
DMX at the Ruff Ryders Reunion concert, April 2017. Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty Images
In keeping with the nature of duality, the light was never far. Songs like “I Miss You,” a beautiful homage to his late grandmother Mary Ella Holloway, stand among hip-hop’s sincerest dedications. In the wake of his death, The Great Depression’s heartfelt single has been among his most revisited tracks, with many finding its relatable take on loss especially resonant. There’s a purity in his reflections on the meaningful connections he’s forged. Reflections that speak to his values and provide deeper insight into his complex mind. “A Minute To Your Son,” the project that closes that same album, finds X taking a moment to pull back and muse on his self-doubts and insecurities. Powerful Flesh Of My Flesh songs like “Slippin” and “Ready To Meet Him” also found X assessing his place in the universe, grounding himself in a reality far more relatable than that which the average rapper presents on a daily basis.
It’s interesting — though X once famously declared on “What’s My Name” that he “has no friends,” a warning to all rappers looking to network, his electrifying charisma and larger-than-life presence made him a natural leader. A keystone member of the legendary Ruff Ryders collective, X found himself taking on a mentorship role for rising emcees like Drag-On and Eve, both of whom looked to him as an older brother. Producer Swizz Beatz, whose finest production was often made specifically for X, felt similarly about his longtime friend and collaborator. It’s clear that many who spent time getting to know DMX found themselves profoundly affected by his presence. Even those who got to know him from his distance, developing an understanding of his character through the unflinching lens of his pen, felt close enough to grieve his death. It’s a testament to the depth of his writing, the ability to paint a clear picture of the man he not only was — but strove to be.
DMX at the B.B King Blues Club in 2016. Noam Galai/Getty Images
By now, the influence that DMX has had on the rap game is deep-rooted. Many legendary lyricists, the likes of which are widely regarded as trailblazers, found themselves at one time or another inspired by Earl Simmons. That, or terrified at the prospect of trading verses with him, a feat that would make any competitive-minded emcee rethink each syllable. Yet what makes DMX’s impact on hip-hop so notable is the way he managed to set trends without actively chasing them. Never once did he waver from keeping unapologetically true to himself. The darkness and the light, both allotted equal screentime throughout the fascinating tale. Such honest self-portraits are not always easy to paint. DMX picked up the brush with courage and his work will be cherished forever.
Rest in peace to one of the greatest to ever do it.