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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: The Gospel According to DMX

In honor of Ringer Films’ new documentary ‘DMX: Don’t Try to Understand,’ Rob and Shea Serrano are discussing the Yonkers rap legend

YouTube/Ringer illustration

On Thursday, Ringer Films will debut the latest installment of its HBO Music Box series, DMX: Don’t Try to Understand. Over the next few days, we’re chronicling the rapper’s rise and place in hip-hop history. Today, on the 51st episode 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Rob breaks down DMX’s pain, passion, and unbridled charisma with help from No Skips’ Shea Serrano.

Let us pray.

Every proper DMX album ends with DMX saying a prayer. Usually a capella. Close to the end. Another track or two, after the prayer, in most cases. DMX is the best prayer in rap history. It’s not a competition, for the obvious, spiritual, prayer-is-not-a-competitive-sport reason, but also because he has no competition.

The prayer typically comes after an hour or so of exhilarating DMX songs, the majority of which involve him robbing and/or shooting someone. Or multiple someones. Let’s not turn this into an analytics thing, but he robs and/or shoots a disconcerting, action-movie-type-body-count number of people. A disreputable action movie. A “We Better Call a Senate Hearing”–type action movie. Sometimes he gets shot. Sometimes he dies. Sometimes everybody gets shot. And whatever happens, it is exhilarating. It is as exhilarating as crime rap has ever been or ever will be.

So this prayer’s at the end of his debut album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, from 1998. May 1998. Plenty of 1998 left. And three tracks before the prayer on It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is the song “ATF,” which is breathless and frantic and ultraviolent and less than two minutes long, and finds our hero, DMX, pursued by the ​​Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and it packs a Raymond Carver’s short story worth of detail and pathos and lurid bloodshed into a minute and 56 seconds, if Raymond Carver had written his short stories while watching his first wife Maryanne play Grand Theft Auto 5. Spoiler alert, but here’s how “ATF” winds up:

Death is in the air
And don’t know if it’s mine
But I know if it is
It’ll be what it is
And all I can think is
What about my kids?

His death is in the air this time. You can tell by his voice that he already knew that. Last thing he hears is boom boom boom open the door ATF. Can we talk about the joint? The joint he pulls from his boot, amidst the shoot-out? The joint he’s puffing on as he gets caught in the shoulder, neck, and ear? Stupendous. Raddest dude who ever lived, in that moment of his death. So this is the guy praying three tracks later. Humble, penitent, supplicant, devout. And the first miracle of DMX is how visceral and genuine both the shoot-out and the prayer sound, coming from his mouth, delivered in such an authoritative, such a terribly vulnerable but also triumphantly invulnerable voice. He knows his death is always in the air. He knows God will protect him for exactly as long as he needs protection. He knows he’s immortal for precisely as long as he needs to be:

And I fear that what I’m sayin’ won’t be heard until I’m gone
But it’s all good, ‘cause I really didn’t expect to live long

There is no contradiction. He prays like he shoots and he shoots like he prays. His prayers can sound every bit as impassioned, as thunderous, as furious as his bonkers shoot-out yarns or his elaborate threats. Here’s how his first prayer on record ends:

So, 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

It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot went multi-platinum, meaning millions of records sold, plural: His first three albums did that. It also debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard Album Chart—his first five albums did that. First artist in history whose first five records debuted at no. 1. He was in pain until he died. This is a tough one. This is gonna be a tough one. Let’s listen to him pray some more, shall we? As requested—as demanded—God gave him strength so he could give us strength.

We’ve moved on to the prayer near the end of his second album, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, released in December 1998. DMX’s rap career started in earnest with two blockbuster albums in the same year. Seven months apart. Ridiculous. 1998. Let’s see here. Broncos won the Super Bowl in January. Yankees won the World Series, Bulls won the NBA championship, of course, Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, France won the World Cup, Mark O’Meara won the Masters, Michigan won the Rose Bowl. Kentucky won March Madness, Israel won Eurovision, Titanic won a bunch of Oscars, and I got pretty good at GoldenEye for the Nintendo 64. Not championship level, mind you, but Grace Jones with grenade launchers in the Facility could do some damage. Just thought I’d mention it. Forget all that. DMX won 1998. He won the whole year. They took every trophy anybody won in 1998 and melted them all down into a giant gilded baseball bat and gave it to DMX because only he could swing it. I’d be praying for his enemies too, quite frankly, though DMX prayed for them for a different reason.

The prayer at the end of Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood is the intro to the album’s last song, called “Ready to Meet Him,” in which God and DMX have … a disagreement. A misunderstanding. An airing of grievances. DMX’s grievances, naturally.

Lord, you left me stranded
And I don’t know why
Told me to live my life
Now I’m ready to die
Ready to fly
I cry, but I shed no tears
You told me you would dead those fears
It’s been years

DMX also voices God on this song, and God answers, and God sets DMX’s mind at ease. This had also happened before, come to think of it. The prayer on his first album led to a track called “The Convo”—DMX asks God why, when he struggled the most, there was only one set of footprints in the sand, and God was like, That’s when I carried you, haven’t you ever heard of that poem “Footprints,” it’s a super-popular poem, go to literally anybody’s house, and look at literally any wall in that house, and “Footprints” is probably hanging on the wall. Haven’t you ever been to the dentist in the Midwest? And DMX is like, No. And God is like, Fair enough, but still, how do you not know that poem? And DMX is like, Okay, all right. So now on album no. 2, “Ready to Meet Him” continues this conversation, this confrontation; my favorite part is when DMX and God start running through the 10 Commandments:

(Thou shall not steal)
But what if he stole from me?
(Thou shall not kill)
But what if he’s tryin’ to kill me?
(Thou shall not take my name in vain)
(No matter how hard it rains, withstand the pain)

They stop right there, which is a drag, because I’d love to have heard one of the most prolific armed robbers in rap history try to Galaxy Brain his way out of Thou shall not steal.

Also DMX earned the right to rhyme pain with rain, a lot. This is a super tough one, dude. Can I keep going, with the prayers? Do you mind? This is a very pleasing rhythm to me. I love DMX’s prayers. And if we’re gonna talk in any detail about DMX I’m going to need DMX’s prayers. Is this OK? This is 60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s, and this week it’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” from It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. Great song, yes? We’ll get there. OK. Let us pray.

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes. To catch DMX: Don’t Try to Understand, check HBO Max beginning Thursday. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.