DMX: Exodus review – a bold and bleak posthumous finale

(Def Jam Recordings)
The New York rapper, who died in April, is strong and unsettling over grimy, atonal production, with guest turns from Alicia Keys, Jay-Z and Bono

Hip-hop loves a posthumous album, but DMX’s has arrived sooner than most because it wasn’t supposed to be posthumous at all. Earl Simmons’ career had been in decline since the mid-00s, eventually grinding to a halt amid a litany of legal problems, health issues and financial woes – he filed for bankruptcy three times, was jailed for everything from tax fraud to animal cruelty; struggled with bipolar disorder and addiction and released only one, poorly received official album, 2012’s Undisputed, in the last 15 years. But prior to his death from an apparent drug overdose this April, he was already on the comeback trail.

The artwork for Exodus.
The artwork for Exodus. Photograph: Jonathan Mannion

He had celebrated his release from jail in 2019 with a startling appearance at Kanye West’s Sunday Service, preaching the gospel in the manner of an ill-humoured battle rapper planning on concluding his verse by punching his opponent’s teeth out. He re-signed to Def Jam, the label on which he had dominated hip-hop at the turn of the millennium: each of the five albums he released for the label went to No 1 in the US, a still-unbroken record, selling more than 16m copies in that country alone. He had, most observers conceded, just snatched victory from Snoop Dogg in a battle on the webcast Verzuz that provoked a plethora of online memes. He had been talking up Exodus – apparently recorded at Snoop’s studio after the Verzuz battle – in the months before his death. Whatever else it may be, it isn’t the kind of posthumous hip-hop album that arrives cobbled together from studio outtakes: according to producer Swizz Beatz, only one track – Money Money Money – was compiled following DMX’s death.

And Exodus was clearly intended to spectacularly revive DMX’s career. There are more guest appearances in these 40 minutes than on his first three albums combined. Clearly his contacts list was raided, with old enmities soothed: Jay-Z, who DMX once described as his “arch nemesis”, turns up on Bath Salt, his smooth boasts about his wealth contrasting sharply with DMX’s raw-throated, desperate-sounding threats of violence. There’s a fresh generation of rappers including recent US chart-topper Moneybagg Yo and, in one intriguing instance, a vocal rescued from the cutting-room floor: Bono’s contribution to Skyscrapers, a game attempt at spiritual uplift, apparently dates back to at least the early 00s.

It feels out of place here because the tone of Exodus is impressively bleak and relentless: for all the starry cast, it feels far more like a bold restatement of core values than an attempt to follow trends. The production – largely the work of Swizz Beatz – is grimy and atonal, chants deputising for musical hooks, backing made up of klaxons, low-end buzzing and echo-drenched voices. It takes four tracks for anything approaching a melody to appear: when they do – the harpsichord sample swiped from a late-60s French pop track on Money Money Money, Alicia Keys’ impressively restrained appearance on Hold Me Down, a Roland Kirk-ish jazzy flute on Hood Blues – they feel as if they’re engaged in a desperate fight for room with the chaos around them, the effect thrilling.

DMX: Hood Blues ft Westside Gunn, Benny the Butcher and Conway the Machine – video

Even the softer tracks that come towards the album’s conclusion feel strangely bleak. The 70s soul-inspired Walking in the Rain returns to one of DMX’s traditional themes, picking apart his own mental health issues. Circumstances have overtaken Letter to My Son, with its warnings to stay away from drugs: presumably intended to reference DMX’s own harrowing childhood, the Usher-sung chorus – “Dear father, you should have been there when I needed you” – takes on a noticeably different cast given recent events. DMX is in strong form throughout, his guttural voice sounding permanently on the edge of panic, adding an unsettling edge to the threats, a sense of renewed hunger to the boasts, a hint of self-loathing to the self-examination.

Whether Exodus would have got the kind of attention it’s receiving had its author lived is a moot point. Hip-hop is a genre in constant forward motion, truly successful comebacks decades after an artist’s commercial peak are rare, and the era of Auto-Tune, Lil Nas X and 42 Dugg is a very different one to that in which DMX reigned supreme. Equally, there are aspects of his approach that seem very modern, not least his willingness to put his frailties front and centre: that his foundational albums didn’t provoke a conversation about mental health has less to do with their contents than the fact that provoking a conversation about mental health wasn’t really a notion in widespread circulation 20 years ago.

Either way, Exodus provides a more fitting finale to a truncated career than the last album to bear DMX’s name, 2015’s Redemption of the Beast, released apparently without his knowledge by a shady-sounding minor label he had signed to when the majors no longer wanted to know. That release told you everything about what can happen when a troubled rapper falls out of favour; Exodus tells you something about his talent.

This week Alexis listened to

Cleo Sol – Don’t Let It Go to Your Head
From the forthcoming second solo by the Sault alumnus: super-cool 21st-century street soul, a beautiful song perfectly delivered.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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