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A R T S    &    C U L T U R E
DMX: The Darker Side of Modernity
Shamed Dogan • The birth of tragedy from the spirit of rap music • February 2000

Since rap’s beginning, rappers have faced the dilemma of whether their function is closer to that of reporters—simply describing life in the hood (as Public Enemy said, “Rap is the black CNN”), or leaders who can provide guidance about how to escape its dire conditions. On …And Then There Was X, DMX (otherwise known as Dark Man X) attempts to be both preacher and player on the same CD. The result is an awkward and muddled message, along with a less than compelling musical effort.

One of the strongest cuts on …And Then There Was X is “More 2 a Song,” on which X chides those who neither report nor inspire, failing to realize that “there’s more to a song than jewelry and clothes/More to a nigga’s life than money and hoes.” It is somewhat surprising that rappers like Puff Daddy and the appropriately named Ma$e are still around, given the almost universal backlash against M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice in the early ’90s, and the fact that the “gangsta” rappers completely outdo them at braggadocio. But their obsession with money mirrors a similar error in priorities among those people in the inner city who only see life in the short term, and thus fail to appreciate goods beyond immediate gratification.

Of course, such people are not the only blacks in the inner city, nor even the majority, and DMX seems unable to decide which segment of the hood he represents. Though DMX attempts to downplay the importance of money and often recalls his upbringing in poverty (“Why must Earl Simmons/swim in dirt?”), he also describes a robbery in graphic detail, proclaiming that “You play with my life when you play with my money,” in “The Professional.” This tension between despising crass materialism and the desire for financial success is part of what makes Americans so interesting. Ultimately, DMX seems to prefer the strength of character gained through life in the streets to the dangers of wealth: becoming “soft.” At the same time, he follows a long tradition of rappers who, transcending their steely images, portray the pain that is caused by ghetto life, even while romanticizing many of its more disturbing aspects.

DMX desperately wants to blend inspiration with his lurid descriptions of violence, as he wonders how he will be remembered in “Fame.” Though Puff Daddy can hardly hope to be remembered for telling people that it’s “all about the benjamins,” X expects that there will be “No second-guessin’ on what I stood for, I was good for/stoppin’ niggaz from killin’ each other in the hood war.” Rappers are not the best of role models. But children will admire them, and we should note DMX’s insistence that his descriptions of violence do not amount to an endorsement. However, like almost all other rappers with similar desires to motivate youth, he doesn’t provide much in the way of positive advice. He also fails to keep it real with regards to his own life—mentioning his wife only once, and then proceeding to brag about all the women he’s been with.

One might not expect DMX to have much in common with the most conservative Republican presidential candidate, Alan Keyes. But Keyes’ explanation of why he dove into a mosh pit seems identical to a piece of wisdom on one of X’s earlier CDs. On “Slippin’,” the Dark Man explains that “to live is to suffer, but to survive; well, that’s to find meaning in the suffering.” As Keyes pointed out, “The real test of dignity is how you carry yourself though hard times,” and the experience of blacks in America has been defined almost solely by hardship, as most black literature and music reflects. One of the primary flaws of modernity—and of modern liberalism in particular—has been the refusal to recognize these “hard times” in a sophisticated manner.

The view of tragedy depicted by DMX, widely accepted among black Americans, demonstrates why it is untenable for so many blacks to identify themselves as liberals. In an interview, DMX contended, “If you think reality is positive, then you’re wrong.” Yet modern comfort-based liberalism is premised on eliminating the kinds of difficult experiences that have forced black Americans to persevere, experiences that have made them as deep as they are today. The spirit of modern liberalism, however, promotes an almost animalistic happiness: food, sex, housing, pleasant emotion, whatever they happen to be; these are the goods towards which liberalism strives. Such a sunny politics, focused on economic redistribution and government solutions to social ills, harbors false expectations of egalitarianism and also sends the implicit message that wealth is necessary (and perhaps even sufficient) for happiness. Rappers deny the premise that to be wealthy is to be happy, citing their own lives as examples. Additionally, some deny that happiness is meaningful, even if it could be achieved, in their depiction of a world where violence and tragedy reign.

The recognition of tragedy partially explains rap’s over-the-top machismo which appeals to young men of all races. Whether between gangs, between citizens and the police, or simply between two people who disrespect each other, conflict and violence occur in the hood in much more volatile forms than elsewhere, as rappers depict vividly. For better or worse, there has always been a strong connection between violence and masculinity, and much of the violence in black America is a result of young black men fiercely trying to show how “hard” they are. The fact that rap has long been bought primarily by white teenage males, as well as the soaring popularity of the testosterone-driven WWF, is evidence that young males largely reject today’s p.c. demand that they suppress their violent instincts.

Musically, …And Then There Was X begins with the energetic bass of “One More Road to Cross” and X’s usual brisk flow, but most of the songs fail to catch the listener’s ear in the same way. Other than the opening song, most of prolific producer Swizz Beats’ tracks lack his usual addictive hooks. The only other standouts on the CD are “More 2 a Song” and the single “What’s My Name,” which captures the sophisticated fury of DMX’s first album. Continuing a troublesome trend in rap, there are three songs featuring other artists, with none showing a Snoop-and-Dre or even a Limp Bizkit-and-Method Man chemistry. The “bonus” track is actually something of a headache, as guest Dyme sounds more like one of 2 Live Crew’s screechy hoochie mommas than an intelligent female rapper.

The bonus track also demonstrates another one of DMX’s problematic contradictions. In contrast to “Prayer III”—even more out of place than was M.C. Hammer’s preaching—“Good Girls, Bad Guys” finds our Man X bragging about his ability to “Turn a church girl into a straight Ruff Ryder/Take her to the Ramada make it an all-nighter.” With the possible exception of 2Pac, rappers’ attempts to blend religion with a kind of nihilistic hedonism have always been laughable, and DMX’s “Angel,” featuring R&B star Regina Belle, is disappointing both philosophically and musically.

In the end, …And Then There Was X demonstrates DMX’s lyrical energy, but fails to find music to match his inspiration. Despite the preachiness of some of his songs and the inconsistency of his message, he remains one of the more chilling and personally exciting rappers on the scene. Listening to a mediocre DMX CD is still an infinitely better experience than any of Will Smith’s or Puff Daddy’s saccharine rhymes.

—Shamed Dogan is a senior in Trumbull College
 
 

 

   
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