DMX Showed The World The Soul Of A Man Through His Vulnerable, Triumphant Music

Earl Simmons, the man known to the world as Dark Man X, has passed away at the age of 50. DMX, who was best known for hits like “Party Up” and “X Gon’ Give It To Ya” and film roles in Belly and Romeo Must Die, died after an apparent relapse, overdose, and heart attack on April 2 that sent him to the hospital and prompted a wave of supportive posts on social media. After a battery of tests to determine his brain function, his family made the decision to remove him from life support.

It may sound like a cliche, but it’s true; DMX shocked the world when he first arrived on the scene in 1995, appearing with Ja Rule, Jay-Z, and Mic Geronimo on the posse cut “Time To Build” and then utterly destroying his standout verse on LL Cool J’s “4, 3, 2, 1” with Canibus, Method Man, and Redman in 1997. By the time he released his debut major-label album, It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot, anticipation was just as high as the temperature in The Bad Place, leading to a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200. When he followed up later that year with Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, he became the first rapper to debut at No. 1 back-to-back in the same year.

From there, he had a string of successive hit albums and singles, including … And Then There Was X, The Great Depression, and Grand Champ. Songs like “Party Up,” “What These B*tches Want,” “Who We Be,” “Where Tha Hood At,” and “X Gon’ Give It to Ya” became pop culture fixtures and have remained popular to this day, with many forming the foundation of memes and samples used in hip-hop by top rappers like ASAP Rocky and Drake.

Unfortunately, a lifelong addiction to cocaine, which started at just 14 years old after he was given a laced blunt by an acquaintance, derailed his career multiple times. Legal issues led to multiple stints in prison, including a 2017 conviction for tax fraud prompting his most recent one. After his release in 2019, he seemed to be on the road to a comeback after completing rehab, plotting out a new album featuring Griselda Records and Pop Smoke, and appearing on Verzuz alongside Snoop Dogg.

X was open about his struggles, often making them the center of dark, sometimes menacing, sometimes vulnerable rhymes on his projects. However, no matter how sinister the subject matter, he always came back to his faith; his penchant for adding prayers to his albums and live shows is well-noted. Meanwhile, his vocal pyrotechnics, ranging from a threatening growl to the explosive barks he used as ad-libs (and reportedly trained one of his actual dogs to add to his live freestyles), were made all the more impressive by his lifelong struggle with asthma — which never stopped him from performing without a hype man, pacing the stage like a caged tiger.

He often stole the show; on posse cuts like Mase’s “24 Hours To Live,” he regularly out-rapped, outboasted, or out-performed his collaborators. For a time, he had a reasonable claim to the coveted “King of New York” title in the wake of Biggie’s death, alongside Ja Rule and Jay-Z, with whom he had an alternately friendly and contentious relationship. Although they came into the game at the same time and even plotted on a group project titled “Murder Inc.,” divisions between led to the dissolution of this idea, while fans pitted them against one another in top rapper debates.

Just check out the freestyle snippet from the Def Jam tour documentary, Backstage, where you can see DMX and Jay-Z trading bars during what was likely one of many impromptu ciphers during their 1999 Hard Knock Life Tour. Jay-Z is cool, collected, and measured as always, but DMX is downright magnetic, speeding and slowing his cadence, one moment just as disaffected as his friend/rival, the next, agitated, belligerent, showing his teeth — just like one of his beloved pets might when a stranger gets a little too close.

X contained all of these emotions and more; his music was an expression of all things hip-hop, from the streetwise braggadocio typical of the biggest hits to the exposed, bloody trauma that he was never quite able to escape from. By putting it all into his music, he expanded the bounds of what rap could be capable of; he was fallible on “Slippin’,” fiery on “Who We Be,” triumphant on “Where The Hood At,” cautioning on “Stop Being Greedy,” and even played the lothario on “What These B*tches Want.” He could be a comedian, a horror film director, an action star, a drug kingpin, a stick-up kid, and a wounded child in need of comfort.

His albums created space and precedent for future rappers like Kanye West and Kid Cudi to address their own struggles with anxiety and depression. And even though X once professed to hate everything Drake stood for, he later softened his stance, understanding that Drake’s outlook was an extension of his own, with different traumas and worries, but the same vulnerability. Kendrick Lamar credits DMX as his favorite rapper for that quality, and he’s likely not the only one who does, as we’ll likely find out in the coming weeks.

DMX’s story could be tragic, but he never let the tragedies of his life solely define him. After all, this was a man who took the internet’s fascination with his gravelly rendition of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and ran with it, releasing a studio version that showed his lighthearted side. He was someone who knew just how hot hell could be, but at the height of his success, got close enough to glimpse heaven. The rap world won’t be the same without him, but it already changed so much because of him. He showed us the soul of a man and hopefully, that soul is finally at peace.