The massive success of hip-hop star DMX showed that there was strength and value in being vulnerable.
While most of his music oozed an extremely toxic, violent brand of machismo, he didn’t mind letting his emotional, God-fearing side show too.
I’ll never forget hearing him cry out on the skit “Prayer”: “If it takes for me to suffer for my brother to see the light. Give me pain till I die, but, please, Lord, treat him right.”
This is what echoed in my mind when I heard DMX (real name: Earl Simmons) died at the age of 50 because of complications from an overdose. The end of his life was tragic, but not without a purpose.
Kids these days don’t know how bright DMX’s star shined when he was in his prime in the late 1990s and 2000s.
He was the first artist to have two No. 1 albums in the same year, as well as the first to have his first four albums debut at the top of the Billboard albums chart — a true feat for physical album sales. He starred in movies and produced multiple hits off their soundtracks, like “Exit Wounds” and “Romeo Must Die.”
He showed future multi-hyphenate rappers like Travis Scott and Eminem that you could do it all and still stay true to yourself. As tributes to him come out after his death on April 9, I think it’s funny to see all of the magazine covers of him, clad in a plain, white undershirt, even as his albums sold tens of millions of copies.
DMX had a brand of raw authenticity that appealed to listeners across the board.
His extremely profane, dark lyrics on songs like “Damien” and “Stop Being Greedy” crossed over to fans of nu-metal bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn. The thumping beats, normally provided by producer Swizz Beatz on songs like “Party Up” and “Ruff Ryders Anthem,” helped him cross over to Top 40 radio. His ability to take stock of his drug addiction and mental health on songs like “Slippin’” and “Fame” got him in with hip-hop listeners tired of the materialistic raps from giants like Bad Boy and Cash Money Records.
DMX’s gravely voice and macho posturing demanded people’s attention. He could lead a crowd of 20,000 at a Limp Bizkit and Godsmack show in a tearful prayer and not get booed. He could steal the show when he opened for hip-hop legends like Nas and Jay-Z.
In his first three albums, arguably the best of his career, DMX acted as both a reporter from the streets of New York, detailing the extremely violent, sexual, troublesome life he lived, (Note: Despite being a devout Christian, his albums carried Parental Advisory stickers for a reason), as well as a minister, praising God for lifting him out of those situations and asking for an escape from his demons.
In many of his interviews, DMX talked about how all of the money, acclaim and fame was never enough for him to escape his demons. In some cases, it made it worse.
DMX didn’t shy away from any of this. If you watch his joyful Verzuz performance with Snoop Dogg from 2020, you see the unbridled joy he has rapping all of his hits. When you watch his interviews with Talib Kweli or GQ, you see him tear up as he looked back on his life.
While his life was full of struggles, from issues with his children to his lifelong fight with drugs, he never lost an appreciation for the lives he touched. Once again, it was that vulnerability that made him unique.
He told GQ in 2019: “65% of the time that I get offstage, I’m so emotionally overwhelmed I just break down. Sometimes it’s leaving the stage, it’s just like, ‘Get me to my dressing room. I don’t want people to see me like this.’ I just take a minute for myself and just, I thank Him, I praise Him. And I’m like, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ I’m like, ‘Who am I to deserve this?’ We all bleed the same blood.”