DMX, a Profound Vessel for Pain

Even when DMX was the most popular rapper on the planet, he was a genre of one: a gruff, motivational, agitated and poignant fire-starter. Pure vigor and pure heart. A drill sergeant and a healer.

In 1998 and 1999, he released three majestic, bombastic albums: “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot,” “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood” and “… And Then There Was X.” Each one debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart and has been certified platinum several times over. He performed at Woodstock ’99 for hundreds of thousands of people. He starred in “Belly,” the seminal 1998 hip-hop noir film. In his songs, he growled like a dog, credibly and often.

And yet there were no DMX clones in his wake because there was no way to falsify the life that forged him. For DMX — who died Friday at 50 after suffering a heart attack on April 2 — hip-hop superstardom came on the heels of a devastating childhood marked by abuse, drug use, crime and other traumas. His successes felt more like catharsis than triumphalism. Even at his rowdiest and most celebrated, he was a vessel for profound pain.

Especially as he got older, and his public struggles — countless arrests, stints in jail, continuing problems with drugs — threatened to overshadow his musical legacy, he never hid his hurt, never let shame overshadow his truth. The potency of his humanity was as heroic as any of his songs.

From the release of his debut Def Jam single, “Get at Me Dog,” in 1998, DMX was an immediate titanic presence in hip-hop. Just as the genre was moving toward polished sheen, he preferred iron and concrete — rapping with a muscular throatiness that conveyed an excitable kind of mayhem. The staccato bursts on “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” — an early Swizz Beatz masterpiece — matched DMX’s jabs of melancholy: “All I know is pain/All I feel is rain.”

His voice was unrelentingly coarse, and in his peak era, between 1998 and 2003, he used it for one chest-puffed anthem after another: “Party Up (Up in Here),” “What’s My Name?,” “Who We Be,” “X Gon’ Give It to Ya,” “Where the Hood At?” Often, he rapped as if he were trying to win an argument, with repetitive emphasis and terse phrasing designed for maximum impact. Even when he dipped into flirtation, like on “What These Bitches Want,” he didn’t change his approach.

But when he took on his own troubled past on “Slippin’,” he tempered himself just a bit, as if showing himself some grace:

They put me in a situation forcing me to be a man
When I was just learning to stand without a helping hand, damn
Was it my fault, something I did
To make a father leave his first kid? At 7 doing my first bid

Even though DMX’s time at the top of the genre was relatively brief, just a few ferocious years, he was never erased from its collective memory. That’s partly because the tumult of his personal life constantly landed him in the spotlight — he was arrested dozens of times, for charges including drug possession, aggravated assault, driving without a license and tax evasion. He rescued stray dogs, and tattooed a tribute to one of his dogs, Boomer, across the whole of his back, but also pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges.

But he remained a subject of sympathy: DMX was a wild man, and a broken one, too. Physically abused by his mother as a child, he spent significant stretches of time in group homes. He took to crime young, specializing in robbery. Many of the stories contained in his 2002 book, “E.A.R.L.: The Autobiography of DMX,” are matter of fact and harrowing.

In a devastating interview last year, he explained that the person who first encouraged him to rap was also the one who first exposed him to crack, forever intertwining the art that was his salvation with the addiction that constantly threatened to undo him.

DMX’s life became a tug of war between his musical gift and his traumas. Beginning in the mid-2000s, he began to fade from the charts. His turns on the big screen, in “Belly,” “Romeo Must Die” and “Exit Wounds,” gave way to turns on sometimes voyeuristic reality television programs like “Couples Therapy,” “Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers” and “Iyanla: Fix My Life.” His search for healing — his need for it — became central to his public narrative.

DMX HAD ALREADY learned to tame arenas on the Hard Knock Life and Survival of the Illest tours by the time I first saw him live, in 2000, on the Cash Money/Ruff Ryders tour. It was as jolting as any performance I’ve ever seen — a frantic yet controlled display of raw charisma and might. Toward the end of his set, he stopped cold to offer a prayer. His body was covered in sweat, his voice was gruff, and thousands of people in the room went from boisterous to silent, sideswiped by DMX’s gospel. I saw the tour again a few weeks later — the scene was no less vivid.

He’d been doing this for a while by then, startling audiences with his religious fervor. “It damn near brings me to tears every night because I get nothing but love. It’s like I’m taking them to church,” he told the Source in 1999. “I just love ’em to death. I can’t even explain it. Just seeing them look at me the way they do. I can’t help but to love them. And I’m not going to take them to the wrong place.”

Every time I’ve seen DMX in the two decades since — from a tiny comeback show at S.O.B.’s in New York to an Easter Sunday convocation with Kanye West at Coachella — he did a version of the prayer, bringing a conflagration of a performance to a halt. On the surface, it seemed like a gift, a way to spread a message about mercy and hope in the unlikeliest of settings. But in those moments, he was also a supplicant laid bare — praying for us, and asking all of us to cover him in return.

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