The Rickety Old Shack

DMX — ...And Then There Was X

album cover

In 2018, DMX has been in the news for any reason but his talents as a rapper. On March 29th, the rapper was sentenced to 1 year in prison, on charges of tax fraud to tune of $2.3 million dollars. This marked only the most recent brush with the law for DMX, who has spent over a decade battling addictions which have seen him in multiple brushes with the law. It's been a sad, albeit predictable downfall for such a larger-than-life star whose musical narrative centred around the duality of a gangster with a desire to be a good person. While rags-to-riches stories often have lamentable outcomes, when I think back 2 decades — when DMX was at the height of his powers — this sort of outcome was difficult to image in his case.

Prior to DMX, I wasn't even a rap fan. I didn't know anything about the genre, but I was certain I didn't like it; I was a fan of rock music — 'real' music! This ignorance persisted for a few years, but eventually I came around. After some chiding from friends — a copies of It's Dark And Hell Is Hot and Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood pilfered from IRC — I fully embraced DMX and his inescapable charisma. His rugged voice, rapid-fire delivery and endless supply of ear-catching verses was as infectious as the assorted beats he rapped over. Leveraging some of the best producers of his era, DMX churned out hit after hit; in such a fractured music industry, it's hard to explain how huge DMX was at the turn of the millennium. It's not that we don't have big stars today, the nature of being 'big' has shifted dramatically.

The release of ...And Then There Was X was a Big Deal, and cemented DMX's place in the record books as the only rapper to have 3 consecutive albums debut at #1 on the Billboard charts. The record has since gone platinum 5 times, for sales in excess of 5 million copies. To this day, "Party Up" is an enduring classic that still gets played regularly. (I hear it every time I go to an Ottawa Senators hockey game, for example.) And Then There Was X is packed full of hits; a time capsule of sorts, illustrating what peak of the mainstream rap genre was all about as we entered the year 2000. Narrated from the perspective of a gangster, the album relays tales of extreme violence, adherence to a nebulous code of street ethics, as well as not insignificant doses of mysoginy and homophobia.

The only breaks in what is otherwise a non-stop set of high energy tracks are the skit tracks. These were the scourge of rap albums throughout parts of the 90s and early aughts, and were almost always an exercise in tedium. Luckily, on And Then There Was X the skits are brief, and fit the loose narrative that runs through the album. They are still annoying, but at least they're brief and setup the tracks that follow. That minor complaint aside, the rest of the album is a series of bangers that come one after another. The record only loses a bit of steam near the end, with "Comin' For Ya" feeling comparatively weak and unnecessary. Despite enlisting a number of different producers, the whole album flows together perfectly as a collection of connected material. (It was only just recently that I looked up the album's credits, having assumed Swizz Beatz did the whole thing for almost 2 decades.)

Despite being almost 20 years old, And Then There Was X still holds up extremely well. DMX's presence on the mic is so powerful on these recordings that they don't diminish with age, even if the man himself has. In stark contrast to a lot of modern rap, And Then There Was X is extremely lyrically dense, packing an incredible number of unique verses into each song. I'm not going to debate which approach is better, but it was a refreshing change of pace to revisit this album and hear tracks that both ran in excess of 2-and-a-half minutes and also featured minimal repetition outside of the chorus hooks. DMX didn't crutch on his charisma, he was an exceptionally gifted MC as well, demonstrating technical gifts in addition to being a showman.

The only flaws on the album are more problems of the genre at the time than anything inherent to DMX. Homophobia wasn't publicly objectionable until this current decade, and the same is largely true with regards of chauvanism and mysoginy. I'm not excusing DMX for some of the lyrical content on this album, but I understand the time period it was released in. I was never a fan of the marginalisation of women to the role of "bitches," but I won't pretend that I took any specific issue with calling people "faggot" until later in my own life. If anything, listening to this album serves to remind me how some attitudes have changed over time. This all being said, I still greatly enjoy this album regardless, and sometimes — such as when Sisquó croons "what these bitches want" on the track by that very name — it's downright cartoonishly amusing.

The whole album is an exaggerated biography of DMX himself; the tale of a man torn between his desire to be a good person and his baser instincts. And Then There Was X turns everything up to 11, but is ultimately the story of a conflicted man with a lot of power. We now know how the story played out, and this record makes for an easy demarcation point for the apex of DMX's reign, an aptly titled monument to one of the greatest rappers to ever grace the game. As much as it is representative of its era, And Then There Was X is also timeless in its quality.

Summary

Even to this day, And Then There Was X is one of my favourite albums. Ever since I first heard "Party Up," I've been unable to hear the opening bars of the beat and not crack a shit-eating, ear-to-ear grin. "Fame" is my personal favourite DMX track of all time, and "The Professional" — with it's first-person narrative from the perspective of a contract killer — is possibly the most cartoonishly violent, entertaining track I've ever heard. Albums don't come more front-end loaded than this one, and the latter half is still extremely good. There are no duds, although I tend to skip "Comin' For Ya" and leave the skits out completely these days. When I talk about records being timeless classics, this is the level of quality I am referring to.

Album Information

Release date: December 21st, 1999
Record label: Def Jam Recordings

DMX — vocals
Dyme — additional vocals (track 18)
Sisqó — vocals (track 9)
Jadakiss — additional vocals (track 14)
Style P — additional vocals (track 14)
Sheek Louch — additional vocals (track 14)
Drag-On — additional vocals (track 14)
Regina Bell — additional vocal (track 17)
Swizz Beatz — production (tracks 2, 7, 12, 15)
P. Killer Trackz — production (3, 8, 11, 18)
DJ Shok — production (track 6)
Dame Grease — production (tracks 4, 14)
Nokio — production (track 9)
Self Service — production (track 19)
Irv Gotti — production (tracks 10, 17)
Billy Gray — production (track 17)
Charly Charles — production (track 18)

Track Listing

  1. The Kennel (skit)
  2. One More Road To Cross
  3. The Professional
  4. Fame
  5. A Lot To Learn (skit)
  6. Here We Go Again
  7. Party Up (Up In Here)
  8. Make A Move
  9. What These Bitches Want
  10. What's My Name?
  11. More 2 A Song
  12. Don't You Ever
  13. The Shakedown (skit)
  14. D-X-L (Hard White)
  15. Comin' For Ya
  16. Prayer III (skit)
  17. Angel
  18. Good Girls, Bad Guys

—by Derek

Published: May 23rd, 2018.