Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Rise and Fall of DMX

(In the interest of full disclosure, I was inspired by hip hopDX blogger William E. Ketchum III and his co-hort J Young putting DMX on his list of most disappointing MC's last year. I had to a double take like most but after reading it, I had to agree.)

10 years ago was a great time for hip-hop. Jay-Z, the Hot Boys, Shyne and Eminem had the headlines and the return of Dr. Dre would make bigger waves by year’s end. But the biggest face was easily DMX, who would drop his third album (And Then There Was X) at the end of the year and would be the last No. 1 album of the 20th century.

First week sales were nearly 700,000 – the 2nd highest of the year behind the Backstreet Boys selling over a million. In a year where everybody in music was doing crazy numbers, DMX sold more his first week than any solo artist. And this was before he released his biggest hit “Party Up” in 2000.

There was no doubt who the face of hip-hop was. If you asked anyone from that era, Jay-Z and DMX were neck-and-neck and arguably X had more crossover appeal despite Jay selling 4 million because he tapped into a wider audience.

DMX was a breath of fresh air when he dropped in 1998. Killed the shiny suit era brought on Bad Boy the minute he dropped his first single “Get at Me Dog” – a Top 40 joint. But even in 1997, he brought the heat with two verses on LL Cool J’s “4,3,2,1” and Mase’s “24 Hours to Live.”

“Get at Me Dog” went gold and his classic debut “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot” soared to No. 1. Then came another classic in “Ruff Ryders Anthem” and suddenly the hardcore scene was back. A raw, emotive delivery, that growl, and a torment you could feel – he was something fresh with a new sound courtesy of Dame Grease and some kid named Swizz Beatz.

This guy was openly praying on his records too. I mean it felt hypocritical to pray and be sincere in one song but then talk reckless in another but for some, it probably related because they felt like they were in two worlds. I could rattle off my favorite songs of his but one of my favorites is "Slippin". He wasn't afraid to let you in his mind and that's an honesty missing from most of hip-hop today.

(Sidenote: I remember getting trouble for reciting the hook of Ruff Ryders Anthem in front of my then, 2 year-old friend. He'd be going through church saying the hook and everyone would look at me like I did something wrong. For the record, I also had him singing Kirk Franklin's cover of Bill Withers "Lovely Day.")

It didn't surprise me that X thought many times about going into the ministry. I told people that if Mase could do it, so could he. God can use anybody he sees fit and if X cleaned up his act, he could impact many lives.

6 months later, “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood” came out and debuted at No. 1 with 670,000 sold. The sky was the limit after that successful tour with Jay-Z. Not to mention that he starred in “Belly” with Nas and earned buzz for his performance. He was planting the seeds for a Hollywood career. So by 2000, he was heading into the stratosphere. But what happened?

How did he go from on the verge of superstardom to being an afterthought. Look at his peers he came with: Jay-Z and Eminem became legends, Mos Def surpassed him as hip-hop’s go to actor, Ja Rule rose just as fast and was gone by 2003-04, Juvenile made hits, Lil’ Wayne blew up late, Mystikal went to jail, Cam’Ron started a movement, Big Pun left us too soon. Where is X? Freshly removed from another stint in jail with more mug shots than hits in the last six years

It baffles my mind knowing how big this guy was but the decline was coming. His next two albums went to No. 1 and barely crept past platinum solely off reputation instead of hits (still sad “Get It On The Floor” wasn’t bigger). By the time his 5th album dropped in 2003, 50 Cent was hailed as the new savior of street rap. The last hit that prolly got him attention was "Who We Be" in 2001.

Plus he had legal woes that sprinkled throughout his career (2000 – busted for marijuana, 2001 – charged with assault after other charges were dropped). He famously blew off the MTV Video Music Awards in 1999 and 2000. By 2008, his name was in the police blotter more than on the radio (drugs, impersonating a fed, speeding with a suspended license). He was released from jail this past month after a 90-day sentence.

*Not to mention, concerts I was supposed to see in San Diego were cancelled twice. I blew off a Spring Break to come back and see him and what happened - no show. SMH*

Maybe it was his volatile personality – the same thing that drove his music was something he couldn’t control in real life. Maybe it was his music not connecting the way it did in 1998, not even with Swizz Beatz making a comeback in 2004. Maybe he just couldn’t stay out of trouble and contributed to his own demise.

Shucks, it was probably all three. His gimmick ran out and what we had left was a tormented individual without an outlet.

Like my friend TriFlaw told me he just didn’t update with the times. He stayed in his lane and eventually it ran out. Hip-hop goes in cycles every five years and his peers were either afterthoughts or at a crossroads by 2004. But by then, their impact was safe. X was on his downfall by 2001 at least in the public eye.

X connected with a lot of people including me because of what he brought to the table. Out of anybody who could’ve been compared to Tupac, he was the best candidate and should have been on the same level as all of his peers right now. To this day, I have yet to hear anybody in hip-hop connect the spiritual and the streets so well.

His career will be remembered for 14 million records sold, first artist in history to have 5 No. 1 albums out the gate, classic hits and album cuts that will get replay value and exploring the two biggest elements of Black music as well as anybody recently – the spiritual and the streets.

Too bad this will be overshadowed by his dramatic free-fall where he became a punch-line and another in the long list of troubled musicians. His demons and unchanging style were his downfall as well as his stepping stone. It's no surprise that just like Tupac, his volatile nature brought him down and hopefully he gets his life back on track now that he's a free man.

While it’s sad to see where Earl Simmons is now, it’s even sadder where you realize where he was 10 years ago as the biggest hip-hop star on the planet.

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