They say that legends never die, but that does’t mean it’s always easy to process when one departs. When news broke last month that rap titan DMX (real name Earl Simmons) had died, sending agonising shockwaves through the hip-hop community, it wasn’t a surprise to see it met with tears and tributes.
As painful as the news was, it wasn’t too long before sadness subsided, replaced instead with emphatic joy and acclamation as fans celebrated the life of rap’s original grand champ. The scenes outside White Plains Hospital in New York where DMX died were euphoric. Crowds of fans were singing, dancing, chanting; they shared stories of meeting X and how his work enriched their lives. His music blasted out of car windows, while the rest of the world listened at home, at work, and wherever else they were. The outpouring of love was electric.
Prior to his death, DMX was in the process of staging a major comeback. Starting with a 20th anniversary tour of his classic debut album ‘It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot’, he also re-signed with Def Jam Recordings, the iconic rap label with which he enjoyed his greatest success. With the new deal came news he was working on a new album, the proper follow-up to 2012’s ‘Undisputed’. X spoke about the album and its progress in a number of interviews before his passing, but unfortunately he never got to release it.
Enter Swizz Beatz, the rapper’s longtime friend and collaborator, responsible for producing some of X’s biggest hits including the genre-defining ‘Ruff Ryders Anthem’. Over the last few years, the pair had been in and out of the studio working on new music, and fans are now finally able to hear what they were cooking up with the release of the rapper’s first posthumous LP, ‘Exodus’.
Opening with the grimy ‘That’s My Dog’, Swizz Beatz’ trademark metallic snares paired with the track’s haunting piano loop instantly transport you to a cold New York underpass at night where survival of the fittest isn’t just the name of a Mobb Deep track. Boasting stellar verses from each of The LOX, X still manages to steal the show. “I‘m the best, it’s somethin’ that I’m takin’ to the grave,” he raps with a snarl, that proclamation now taking on new prescience.
Setting a precedent for the rest of the album in terms of ferocity, ‘Exodus’ – sharing its name with DMX’s youngest son Exodus Simmons – is a rowdy affair, packed with hand grenade beats and razor-sharp verses designed to go straight for the jugular. X sounds right at home on ‘Hood Blues’, alongside current hardcore rap favourites Benny The Butcher, Conway The Machine and Westside Gunn of Griselda, his menacing growl weaving ruggedly into the dusty production, before his belligerent bars (“I got that cannon that’ll remove your head and shoulders”) conjure up thoughts of his days as a stick up kid.
The much anticipated ‘Bath Salts’ featuring JAY-Z and Nas, which was first teased by Swizz back in 2017 during a beat battle with Just Blaze, is an undeniable banger that’ll ring off in the club, but as good as it is to hear the three rap heavyweights team up, the track sounds dated and out of place on ‘Exodus’. However, another big collaboration ‘Take Control’ hears X and Snoop Dogg put their own spin on Marvin Gaye’s 1982 super-hit ‘Sexual Healing’, gliding all over the smooth Denaun and Swizz Beatz production. The results are spectacular.
Elsewhere, ‘Money Money Money’ – a wired up-tempo anthem featuring Moneybagg Yo –hears X getting uncharacteristically materialistic, while on ’Dogs Out’ he sounds reenergised teaming up with Lil Wayne for a rapid-fire lyrical melee. But as much as X was loved for his tough-talking and sinister raps, he shined brightest when he wore his big heart on his sleeve, sharing his inner struggles and delivering deeply introspective stories about his traumatic childhood. ‘Exodus’ has plenty of this.
On the soaring ‘Hold Me Down’ with Alicia Keys DMX seeks out support and loyalty from God and those closest to him; ‘Letter To My Son’ hears X sharing a beautiful moment with his eldest son, Xavier Simmons; and ‘Skyscrapers’, which recalls DMX’s track ‘Lord Give Me A Sign’, is an empowering, blue sky-filled anthem where U2’s Bono channels his inner John Legend.
’Walking In The Rain’ is the album’s crowning moment. Produced by DJ Premier and Denaun (who also sings the hook), it’s warm, poignant and full of space. It’s DMX at his best. And even though it features one of rap’s most celebrated lyricists, Nas, not even God’s Son can outshine X on the retrospective redemption song.
Less a cohesive body of work and more a collection of tracks, ‘Exodus’ feels a little unfinished at times, because of a lack of verses from X and the occasional filler record. Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful tribute record loaded with stellar individual moments, and serves as a beautiful reminder of why the world fell in love with DMX in the first place.