The best song on DMX’s recently released, posthumous album Exodus is “Bath Salts.” It’s the song that best summarizes the album’s purpose, that gives us the best glimpse of DMX as an artist hitting middle age, taking stock, and quietly contemplating the future while celebrating his accomplishments. It’s probably no coincidence that the featured guests are Jay-Z and Nas at their absolute best, as the three rappers have been peers, rivals, friends, and the rear guard of hip-hop’s turn-of-the-millennium boom era, three of the last men standing.
It’s hard to say whether the rest of the album clears the high bar set by just its second track because it’s been so long since DMX released new music on his own accord that there’s no telling whether the rest of his guest features are the result of natural evolution or algorithmic calculation. I don’t know that the DMX would have especially wanted to work with someone like Bono on “Skyscrapers” or Moneybagg Yo on “Money Money Money.” In fact, in a recent interview, the album’s executive producer Swizz Beatz even admitted the latter was a replacement choice after the desired Pop Smoke verse turned out to be unavailable.
Swizz is as much responsible for the album’s direction as anyone, the navigator to X’s driver. There are times when it feels like Swizz’s desires dictate the sound and collaborators as much as X’s did — like in Goofy Movie when Max changes Goofy’s map so he can attend the Powerline concert instead of visiting his pop’s sacred fishing hole. When Alicia Keys pops up — bless her — it smells strongly of Swizz doing favors for people in his circle. It’s a circle that had grown to include pop-favorite multi-millionaire R&B stars like Usher, but not so much the purveyors of the gritty street sounds that informed Swizz and X’s earliest work.
And yet, there are allusions to that work all over the album, making it feel less like the slapdash, stream-baiting efforts on other posthumous releases that have come out over the past few years — way too many. Way. Way. Too. Many — and more like a DMX album proper — maybe a more mellow Grand Champ. Swizz certainly sets things off properly with “That’s My Dog,” which features X’s Ruff Ryders compatriots The LOX, each member in rare form. Then, there’s the aforementioned “Bath Salts,” on which Nas makes a rock-solid case that Swizz Beatz should absolutely executive produce as many of the next albums the Queens icon cares to make (seriously, they are batting like .800 in the past few years, why hasn’t this happened yet?).
DMX proves he can still hang with his contemporaries lyrically, and his flow, despite being worn by time, still connects like an aging NBA player polishing his finesse game as time robs him of his explosiveness. It’s when he tries to get it back that the seams begin to show. Of course, again, it’s difficult to pinpoint the issue on the missteps. The yell-raps on “Money Money Money” and the Griselda Records- featuring “Hood Blues” sound rushed and off-kilter — is this intentional? Is it the result of rust? Did DMX have trouble adjusting to these beats, which are a bit unusual in his catalog as they feature Swizz’s more recently developed swing-style drums? Or is it Swizz and his engineers being in too big a hurry to finish this project before the spotlight swung away, flying vocals onto mismatched production to take advantage of the name recognition of guests?
It certainly feels like this on the pop reaches, “Hold Me Down” and “Skyscrapers.” Fortunately, another Ruff Ryders appearance — this time from oft-overlooked members Cross and Infrared on a hilarious, hyperviolent skit — sets things right, setting the stage for the more confessional, emotive back half of the album, featuring the songs that X most likely had more of a hand in. His flow, subject matter, and voice certainly seem better suited to “Walking In The Rain” — the fact he performs the hook himself suggests that it was certainly one of the songs he finished before he passed. It’s classic DMX, a ruminative track that looks inward and backward, with X and Nas reflecting on life changes.
Likewise, on “Letter To My Son,” DMX speaks to the titular Exodus from the perspective of an elder addressing his son on the cusp of manhood — an opportunity robbed from him by his addiction. It’s a sobering thought, that X could foresee a world in which he wouldn’t have the chance to have the grown man chat with his son. Moments like this album closer suggest that maybe X wanted to use this project to say all the things he wouldn’t get a chance to say. Perhaps if he had been alive to see it finished, little would have changed from the product that ultimately came. That’s always the tragedy, isn’t it?
It’s funny; for all the dog imagery DMX has embraced throughout his life and career, he resembles nothing here so much as an old lion. He’s battle-scarred, he’s tired — but he’s no less noble and beautiful for it. He has the authority and lived experience that his advice rings true, yet he has little interest in holding the throne. Leave that for the cubs. He’s earned his place, he’s left his legacy. The only thing left is to say goodbye. The fiery father figure somehow found a way to do that, leaving behind a flawed but fitting testament to a flawed man.
Exodus is out now via Def Jam. Get it here.