Thinking of J. Cole’s recent success of having his first four albums go no. 1 spurred memories of one of the other two rappers who accomplished a similar feat: Drake and DMX. Yes, DMX, he of many unflattering headlines in the current day had his first four solo efforts reach the top of the charts during his late ’90s heyday. Comparing that record with his arrest record in the years that followed brings to mind the question of where it all went wrong. For that answer, look no further than his third record, …And Then There Was X, released on this day in 1999.
Before we go too deep into it, let’s establish that …And Then There Was X was not a bad project. X, Swizz Beatz and the Ruff Ryders camp were all fire hot around this time period and records were still selling in high numbers. So how did And Then… end up soiling X’s track record? Primarily, the quest for more success. DMX thought he could do no wrong but that’s what happens when you record a song with Marilyn Manson.
Remember that X was coming off the massive success of his first two projects, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, which went quadruple platinum and triple platinum, respectively. Those albums were both released in 1998, with the second actually being birthed from a million dollar bet. Lyor Cohen was running Def Jam at the time and he placed the ultimate carrot in front of X and his team. “Lyor said if I could do another album in 30 days, I’d get a million-dollar bonus. That was the whole drive,” X recently revealed to Fader. They completed the challenge in grand fashion as the album landed no. 1 on the charts and went gold in its first week before eventually going on to sell three-times platinum.
Let’s acknowledge that …And Then There Was X did have its fair share of success. Tons of success in fact. The project is certified five-times platinum, making it X’s biggest seller in his catalog, and it sported three singles — “What’s My Name,” “Party Up (Up in Here)” and “What These B*tches Want” — that all went on to become anthems, each in their own right. “Party Up” probably still clears substantial royalty checks to this day since it pops up in TV commercials and movie trailers from time to time. It’s okay to admit that you still have know more than half of the 46 different women — because there were three Kims — named on the Sisqo-assisted “What These B*tches Want.” The doomsday sound of “What’s My Name” still rings out as clear as it did at the time of its release.
The wrinkle here is that as that, despite their success, those singles are symbolic of what happened with the rest of the project — things with X sounded like they were going in forced directions. Instead of making the gritty songs that were authentic to the emotions only X could express, Swizz and company tried to contort DMX’s style into a neatly packaged presentation they could market.
Swizz once explained how he took X’s frustration and turned it into “Party Up,” which is remarkable in a sense but not exactly the best move in hindsight because most fans weren’t coming to DMX for party records. Coincidentally, the song wasn’t created in New York. They opted to go to Miami instead, which, again, would explain the change in the final product.
“‘Party Up’ was at a time when things were moving fast,” Swizz told Complex in 2011. “X was probably frustrated coming to the studio that day like, ‘Y’all gone make me lose my mind!’”
He continued, “So we said, ‘You’re not the only person who feels like that. Everybody feels like that.’ We took that frustration and excitement and put it into a hit song. Capturing those moments as a producer is important. Knowing how to spot that hit element came in play on that record.”
The song was a definitely a hit, but it hasn’t aged well at all, despite what the teen inside says to the contrary. Playing “Party Up” might still gain a reaction at a frat party or at a karaoke function. But in any other setting, one minute of listening reveals the changes from ’98 to ’99 for X. A song like “Party Up” has its share of aggression but none like the hunger that made prior singles like “Get at Me Dog” great. X’s outlook was completely different because on the latter song, he was hopeless (“I got a lot of dreams, but I ain’t really chasin’ mine”) and by the time he got to “Party,” he was in Miami putting in work in the studio then doing lord knows what else with his time and money.
“What These B*tches Want” was the dog we knew and loved. Here was Earl crafting his version of a song soft enough for women, thanks to help from Dru Hill’s Sisqo and Nokia, but made for men. He became the bad boy ladies love to get their hands on, even if it meant being burnt, while also propping himself up as a guy who other men could envy due to his many conquests chronicled in the song. The problem came when they went to the well one too many times for “Good Girls, Bad Guys,” a song that’s as annoyingly painful as the female voice that occupies space on the song’s chorus. Women loved X not because he catered to them, but because he didn’t cater to them. He also showed his emotional and spiritual sides to himself that naturally appealed to both men and women. When an MC is able to create those types of connections, he doesn’t have to try tap into something that’s really not their in his artistry.
The album’s bright spots — “One More Road to Cross,” the cautionary tale “Here We Go Again” and the requisite God song, “Angel” and the accompanying “Prayer” entry — all work well. “D-X-L” still plays as a Yonkers all-star cut as D returns to the block to cypher with the L-O-X. But too many of the other songs came off as missteps that tried to follow the blueprint too closely. “Make a Move” tries to siphon the cinematic sound Puff and company were using at the time with Bad Boy, the whole antithesis of the Ruff Ryders movement, to very bad results. The same applies to “Don’t You Ever” as it ends up sounding like a song created when no ideas were left in the tank. Toss “Comin’ for Ya” in here as well as one of those classic Swizz missteps where he aims for a big sound and a chant for a chorus that never makes its mark. For any other artist, the songs and the album as a whole would be considered a solid body of work. But, the expectations were higher for DMX and his cohorts and And Then… was the first time they showed signs that they might not be able to keep up the high standards they had created for themselves.