The first time I heard about DMX’s final album, Exodus—now a posthumous release—I was listening to him on the February 12 episode of N.O.R.E.’s podcast, Drink Champs, explaining how he’d recently recorded a song with Bono. Initially, I misheard him, and so did N.O.R.E., who interjected to determine whether DMX was in fact referring to Vado, the rapper. “Bono. The U2 nigga,” DMX said. “I’m almost overwhelmed by the people not just excited by this project but wanting to be a part of it.”
DMX died on April 9, eight days into his hospitalization following a reported drug overdose and cardiac arrest at his home in White Plains, New York. Thousands of mourners gathered for his memorial service at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where a monster truck delivered his casket. When he had taped his interview with N.O.R.E. just a couple months earlier, he was as candid and energetic as ever. He recalled robbing a street merchant with Ja Rule in New York years before they became hip-hop superstars. He recounted his adventures in Hollywood with Aaliyah and Jet Li. He hyped his return to Def Jam and teased the new album with contributions from Lil Wayne, Alicia Keys, and, yes, Bono.
DMX wasn’t just releasing an album for old time’s sake, but he wasn’t quite planning a chart comeback either. He had disappeared during the past decade; he now seemed determined to mature, as Snoop Dogg and Nas have matured, into a respectable senior rank in hip-hop, above late-career obscurity but short of retirement. He had hired a personal trainer to help him get back into peak physique. But more importantly—on Drink Champs, at least—DMX sounded good. Maybe even Bono would too.
Unfortunately, DMX sounds exhausted on Exodus. Here he’s no longer uttering his trademark growls, but rather wheezing. He barks but now his voice cracks. He was 49 years old when he recorded Exodus; he’d survived crack, jail, and the music industry. He spent his whole life rapping, and now here he was burning the very last gas in the tank. DMX’s longtime producer, Swizz Beatz, oversaw the project, making the beats and assembling the verses from Jay-Z, Nas, Snoop, and The LOX, as well as the street revivalists Westside Gunn, Benny the Butcher, and Conway the Machine from Griselda Records. Swizz rushed to release Exodus just a couple months after the rapper’s death. He’s also produced the brunt of DMX’s discography, including all of his post-peak projects, so you’d think Exodus might at least bear some final, cherishable insights about a rapper whom the producer knew better than anyone else. But in its scant 39-minute runtime, Exodus hides DMX. The first song on the album resigns DMX to the last verse. So does the second song. So does the third. So does the fourth. Swizz seems determined to bury DMX at the very back of his own record.
Exodus isn’t bad, just distressing. DMX sounds weary, the features sound poorly coordinated, and the beats sound a bit creaky: I thought I could live with these shortcomings. By the sheer strength of his voice, DMX could elevate the tackiest beat to supreme elegance and the basest expressions to spiritual upheavals. But the songs conspire against him at every other turn. The LOX joins DMX on “That’s My Dog,” a Ruff Ryders reunion that should prove nostalgic. But for the most part the song produces a startling contrast: DMX may be out of practice, but Jadakiss, Styles, and Sheek aren’t. Likewise, Jay-Z and Nas accompany DMX on “Bath Salts,” and Jay-Z has the nerve to rap about trivia and extravagance. Listening to “Bath Salts,” you’d never guess DMX and Jay-Z once shared tour dates, magazine covers, and war stories. Wayne (on “Dogs Out”) and Snoop (on “Take Control”) seem a bit more deferential to DMX’s styles and concerns; Wayne in particular commits to a level of homage in his wordplay unrivaled by anyone else on the album.
Posthumous or not, Exodus might have employed these contributors to rehabilitate DMX, his peers and progeny rallying around a beloved but beleaguered rapper long into his critical twilight. Instead, the rappers overwhelm DMX, and the producer obscures him on the last album we’ll ever get to hear from him.
I don’t mean to underestimate the challenges in releasing a posthumous album. By all accounts, Swizz Beatz dedicated his best efforts and discipline to producing Exodus. “We hadn’t done something like this for over 13 years,” Swizz told The New York Times, “that type of togetherness in the studio every day.” There are posthumous projects from younger musicians cut down in their prime, and pulling those projects together is difficult enough. Then there’s Exodus, an album now memorializing a 50-year-old statesman whose later releases have long been taken for granted. I revisit the earlier albums, and then I listen to Exodus, and I keep wondering, What does DMX mean to Swizz Beatz? His beats have always been marked by certain quirks and exuberance, signatures that suited DMX poorly once his voice began to crumble. How could Swizz let DMX (of all people) sound so low and soft? Why does he shove DMX to the back of so many collaborations on his own album? Why did he insist on spamming “Hey!” all over the song with Bono?
Maybe I’m just mad he’s gone. Maybe Swizz has presented the strongest possible result given the circumstances, and I just can’t stand to confront the inherent limitations. That’s the trouble with great musicians. Even the most tumultuous rappers can make the tumult sound easy, even romantic, or even amusing. DMX rapping “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” at a radio station has a way of taking your mind off of his many problems, as well as your own. But nothing about Exodus sounds easy. You can hear the strain of its recording and production in every song.
There’s insight here, but as always with DMX, the insight comes with the coldest comfort. Even The LOX, for all their early misadventures in the music industry, found a happier ending than DMX, and that’s the truth. Jay-Z sold out, and that’s the truth. DMX didn’t retire; he disappeared and then he died before he could even begin to reemerge, and that’s the truth. These songs aren’t so exciting or flattering. But these songs are honest to God.