If it weren’t for the record run of five consecutive No. 1 albums, DMX would make a fine revivalist preacher. However tired his between-song arguments and commentary were Wednesday night, his energy and passion made you pay attention.
By most accounts, that Earl Simmons was onstage at all at Trees Wednesday was improbable. The criminal convictions and the years of jail time and the lifelong drug habit (that he’s reportedly since purged) have clearly morphed him into a different human than the one who set Billboard records and enjoyed a brief stint as an action star.
His audience has shrunken to a microcosm of what it once was, and the silver lining is that the fans who attend these shows at 600-or-so capacity venues are like the two young men who jolted their heads back and screamed, “This is fantastic!” and “I feel like I just got baptized again!” after X did 50 pushups and immediately fired through 2003’s “Where The Hood At.”
It’s easy to think of DMX as a notorious Luddite who doesn’t understand Google and is so out of touch with the modern world that a rap album titled I’m Gay makes his brain stop working, at least for a second.
It’s more difficult to think of DMX as the important artist he is, one who became a superstar in a crowded New York City rap scene clogged with other genre disrupters. It’s more difficult to listen to the nuance in his rhyme schemes and his delivery, often dotted with brief pauses that highlight the inflection on his next line. It’s easier to simply see him as a barking clown with a few hits, not the man who spent years crafting terrifying narratives and sneaking phrases like, “All I know is pain / all I feel is rage / I cannot maintain / the madness on my brain” into his biggest hits.
Seeing him live is to see him struggle through these two personas. His voice is even more gravelly and his speech is stunted, making him difficult to understand when he isn’t rapping. He’s lost relevance, yet still rails against modern rap; had it not been for his furious energy, the three times he repeated “my people perish for lack of knowledge” would’ve been very old-man-yells-at-cloud.
The first two-thirds of his set was single-heavy, running through “Where My Dogs At,” “Ruff Ryders Anthem,” “Get it on the Floor” and “X Gon’ Give It To Ya,” among others. He had his antics, too, for better or worse. At one point he channeled his acting career, having his soundman cut the microphone and music to allege that Trees, a venue that has hosted rap artists as notable as Kendrick Lamar and Bun B, was trying to get out of paying him. A staffer later told me the soundman was part of X’s staff.
He spent much of his between-song banter painting himself as a sort of rap game Job, expressing that he’s finally become the man that he has always wanted to be because the lord has taken so much from him. He neglected to mention free will and his rap sheet, littered with crimes he wrought upon himself, other humans, and animals.
He looks aimless when he isn’t rapping and when he’s on stage he should never stop. His a cappella rendition of a verse of “It’s All Good” was fantastic and a nice reminder that his rapping abilities have never waned.
But it was clear that X is a changed artist. He wants to rekindle the past with his present as a law-abiding, God-loving American citizen. But his fans likely won’t let him: As he attempted to lead the crowd through an impassioned prayer to end the night, a man in the back of the room called for “Bring Your Whole Crew.” The song is most notable for a graphic line celebrating necrophilia.