Looking at rapper DMX's life is like watching someone punch himself in the face repeatedly. You can easily picture a cherubic angel sitting atop one of the big black guy's shoulders, telling him not to snort that line of coke or skip that appointment with his probation officer. But on the other shoulder, there's a horned red devil prodding him with a pitchfork, urging him to just go ahead and do it.
For DMX, choosing between right and wrong is an extreme struggle — and it's never sounded fiercer than on his unreleased double album, Walk with Me Now and Fly with Me Later. His gruff, deep voice bursts out of him on these tracks, almost like he's barking, truly the sound of a man who calls himself the Dog. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all there, the words of an everyday man falling down and trying to get back up.
Lyrically, his new songs paint a striking picture of his duality. He makes liberal use of the words "nigga" and "faggot," and raps about "breaking shanks" in jail and feeding people to javelinas — but then he's also rapping repentance and praying to God.
There are jazz horn samples, funk beats, and rhythmic record scratching on "It Ain't My Fault," and screaming '70s classic rock guitar that drives "The Way It's Gonna Be." And it all sounds phenomenal.
Whether DMX is rapping about shooting people on the streets over an infectious club groove or praising God over somber piano and church bells, his lyrics are raw and heartfelt, filled with tight rhymes wrapped around beats that make heads bob. It feels like dancing and crying at the same time. Even if you can't specifically relate to shooting someone or being in a jail cell, you can relate to being conflicted, and to the struggle of trying to do the right thing when everything is going wrong. That's the story of DMX's life. His music speaks to a lot of people.
DMX is the only hip-hop artist in history to have five straight albums debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, including two in one year. He has sold more than 21 million albums worldwide. His huge fan base has dwindled as his legal problems have mounted. But he could be like troubled NFL quarterback Michael Vick, staging a triumphant comeback and silencing haters with an MVP-type performance. Because now, for the first time since 2006, there are two albums' worth of great new DMX music ready for release.
And for now, anyway, no one can buy them.
You can hear a few of DMX's new songs exclusively here, but don't expect an album anytime soon. The new DMX record was scheduled for release in March, but it's been repeatedly delayed while the rapper (real name: Earl Simmons) tries to get himself out of trouble — again. He is incarcerated at the Alhambra prison complex in Phoenix — and, in news surprising to his fans but perhaps not to those closest to him — he is being held in the prison's mental health ward.
Simmons, 40, has been in and out of group homes and jails his whole life. His criminal record includes more than 20 arrests across the nation, for rape in New York in 1998 and a stabbing in Denver in 1999 (he was acquitted of both), animal cruelty in New Jersey in 2002 (he pleaded guilty), and numerous drug possession charges.
He has done drugs for decades, mostly marijuana and cocaine. At times, he's also been a heavy drinker. When he got famous, his manager, Nakia Walker, says people kept his missteps quiet, so he tended to get off easy. But now he's in prison again for a probation violation stemming from failed drug tests, and since he's been away from the business for a while, all the media have to focus on are his repeated arrests.
But the fact that DMX is behind bars is only one reason his album hasn't come out yet. There's also wrangling over music licenses, investors, and publishing royalties, all compounded by the fact that, after years of paying legal fees and being a free-spending rap star, DMX is virtually broke.
Her Royal Majesty's Records, which owns the licenses to his album, doesn't want to release the record while DMX is incarcerated — and says it needs more backers for distribution and promotion. The fact that DMX can't promote the record has kept investors away, and he can't afford to put money behind it himself. And his onstage outburst in Scottsdale in November toward Def Jam Recordings president Jay-Z, his former collaborator and potential benefactor, hasn't helped his comeback aspirations.
Over several weeks in late 2010, reporters were granted access to Simmons, his management team, his family members, and people who've worked with him on the new material. With the exception of two brief local television interviews, that access has been exclusive, right up until Simmons' most recent court date on charges of probation violation.
Many famous rappers from troubled backgrounds — including Lil' Wayne, T.I., and Too Short —have been jailed on various charges. But DMX has sold more records in the U.S. than they have, and his rap sheet is the longest.
Many claim to find God in prison, and DMX is no exception. But he is different because he's clearly still straddling the fence. He has made handfuls of gospel songs, and says he wants to change. At the same time, he says he's "hungry and angry." And he hasn't changed. Remarkably, he doesn't seem to be faking either side. He's a convicted man in more ways than one.
Those close to Simmons say they're doing everything they can to help him get his life together, but he frequently ignores their advice and makes bad decisions. They all say he's had streaks of sobriety, but ends up backsliding. They agree he has a potential hit album, but every time they get ready to release it, he gets arrested. For Walker, there's more at stake than just his freedom and an amazing new album. "If we don't get Earl together," she says, "X is not gonna exist."