The Devil in DMX

Looking at rapper DMX's life is like watching someone punch himself in the face repeatedly. One can easily picture a cherubic white 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, he's got 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 more fierce 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 new tracks — almost like he's barking, truly the sound of a man who calls himself "the dog." The good, bad and ugly is all there, the words of an everyday man falling down and trying to get back up.

Lyrically, DMX's new songs paint a striking picture of his duality. On one hand, he makes liberal use of the words "nigga" and "faggot" and raps about "breaking shanks" in jail and feeding people to javelinas. On the other hand, he's rapping repentance and praying to God.

Musically, the tracks run the gamut, from the jazz horn samples, funk beats and rhythmic record scratching on "It Ain't My Fault" to the screaming '70s classic rock guitar that drives "The Way It's Gonna Be."

And it sounds phenomenal. Whether he's rapping about shooting people on the streets over an infectious club groove or praising God over somber piano and church bells, DMX's lyrics are raw and heartfelt, filled with tight rhymes wrapped around beats that make you bob your head. It feels like dancing and crying at the same time. Even if you can't specifically relate to shooting someone or being locked in a jail cell, you can relate to being conflicted, and the struggle of trying to do the right thing when everything's 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 #1 on the Billboard charts, and twice in one year. He's sold more than 21 million albums worldwide. At one time, he had a huge fan base; those fans have dwindled as his legal problems have mounted. But he could be like troubled NFL quarterback Michael Vick, staging a triumphant comeback and silencing the 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 it.

You can hear a few of DMX's new songs exclusively on the Web site of the Houston Press's sister paper Phoenix New Times, but don't expect an album anytime soon. The new DMX record was originally scheduled for release this coming March, but it's been repeatedly delayed while the rapper (real name: Earl Simmons) tries to get himself out of trouble — again. He's currently incarcerated at the Alhambra prison complex in Phoenix — and, in news surprising to his fans but perhaps not to those closest to him, DMX is now being held in the prison's mental health ward.

Simmons, now 40, has been in group homes and jails, off and on, his whole life, beginning when he was just a boy. His criminal record includes more than 20 arrests across the nation, for everything from rape in New York in 1998 and a stabbing in Denver in 1999 (he was acquitted of both) to animal cruelty in New Jersey in 2002 (he pleaded guilty) and numerous drug possession charges.

Simmons has done drugs since he was a teenager, mostly marijuana and cocaine. At times, he's also been a heavy drinker. When he got famous as a rapper, his manager says, people kept his missteps quiet and he tended to get off easy. But now he's in jail 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 currently behind bars is only one reason his double album, Walk with Me Now and Fly with Me Later, hasn't come out yet. There's also legal 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.

The licenses for his new album are owned by Her Royal Majesty's Records, but the company doesn't want to release the record when DMX is incarcerated — and they say they need more investors for distribution and promotion. The fact that DMX can't tour and promote the record from jail has kept investors away, and he can't afford to put money behind the record himself. And his onstage outburst in Scottsdale, Arizona, last November toward a former collaborator and potential benefactor — Def Jam Records President Jay-Z — hasn't helped his comeback aspirations.

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Niki D'Andrea
Contact: Niki D'Andrea