Rap doesn’t have a retirement plan. For every Jay-Z or Nas, veterans known as much for the contents of their investment portfolios as their records these days, there are scores of beloved performers who aren’t doing as well. The hits dry up on everyone in time; either you’re prepared for that, or you’re back hustling to make ends meet. In a field notorious for tall tales and expenditures, that fall can be subtle. Maybe your favorite rapper starts hawking offbeat products during their public appearances, using their social-media accounts to promote weight-loss supplements, hosting motivational seminars, or popping up in delightful commercials for local businesses. These awkward dealings often scan as funny, but they never bode well. When your audience loses interest, your bargaining power diminishes. What happens next is rarely pretty. We talk a big game about giving artists their flowers — as we should — but love doesn’t keep the lights on.
The value of the Verzuz battles born of the pandemic, beyond the feel-good nostalgia we get from them as viewers, lies in reconnecting artists with audiences that have dispersed in the years since the performers’ commercial peak. It’s a space for a musician to show us what they’ve been up to and for us to remind them that we care. According to Swizz Beatz, it was in the days following his Verzuz last summer that DMX got the drive to make a new album. It had been nearly a decade since his last official studio album (discounting the choppy, unsanctioned compilation Redemption of the Beast, which was released against the artist’s wishes in 2015), a rough patch marked by sporadic guest spots, money troubles, an upsetting episode of Iyanla, Fix My Life, and worrying arrests. DMX wanted to prove he still had something to say, to own his status as a 50-year-old survivor, to match wits with his peers and successors again. Swizz was paying it forward for the man who helped put him on.
“Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” introduced a lot of hip-hop fans to DMX, but it was also Swizz’s first successful beat, the start of a hit parade that has kept the Bronx-born beat-maker afloat ever since. The pair drifted apart in the aughts, though, when X made headlines for everything but music. New York hip-hop was changing, and the man whose first three albums famously went platinum over a stretch of 18 months was falling out of step with the times. He was still good for a hit; you may not remember the dodgier parts of the Grand Champ and Year of the Dog … Again albums, but “Get It on the Floor,” “Where the Hood At?,” and “Lord Give Me a Sign” endured. Promising cuts on off-peak releases, like Redemption of the Beast’s Freeway collab “Where You Been?” or “What They Don’t Know” from 2012’s Undisputed, suggested that all DMX needed was a favorable label situation and a producer who understood his strengths and his process.
Exodus, the new DMX album out today, is posthumous by circumstance but not by process; in a private listening session earlier this week, Swizz said the record had been finished long before X’s sudden passing this spring. (Swizz told Complex that his only bit of interference after the fact was trimming records.) The guests are people X wanted to work with. These are songs he had every intention of our hearing. This isn’t always the case with a posthumous rap release, in which records are often cobbled together out of bits of what was left behind and the ambitions of an executive producer with too much dip on their chip yield bizarre pairings between deceased artists and living producers and performers who might never have met. It was on a posthumous album that Biggie met Korn, that we found out what 2Pac sounds like over Eminem beats. Exodus doesn’t push X past his comfort zone. It draws notable figures into the late Yonkers star’s orbit.
Exodus is the sound of sparks rekindling, of friends reuniting. X is scrubbing off the rust. Swizz is striking a precarious balance between raucous ’90s street rap, smooth R&B, stadium-rap bombast, and modern minimalist boom bap. The loudest songs recall the Ruff Ryders’ heyday. Up top, “That’s My Dog” unites X with his former labelmates the LOX, proving that the still-hot chemistry of last summer’s “Bout Shit” was no fluke. Lil Wayne is in rare form on “Dog’s Out,” a follow-up to Tha Carter V’s Swizz collab “Uproar,” where the Louisiana veteran again skates effortlessly across an East Coast production. “Bath Salts” — the Jay-Z, Nas, and DMX song Swizz has been teasing ever since the battle with Timbaland seen as the inspiration for Verzuz — appears here minus the Jadakiss vocals we heard in a 2017 snippet, though it’s no less potent. (Nas runs off with it, making up for saying shit like “I’m Coinbase’d, basically cryptocurrency Scarface” on “Sorry Not Sorry,” the DJ Khaled single where he and Jay last squared off.) DMX holds his own in every scenario, though he’s not quite at a level to give Jay a run for his money, as he did 20 years ago on classics like Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood’s “Blackout” and Busta Rhymes’s “Why We Die.”
Tread deeper into the album and the flurry of creative threats of violence over abrasive beats cools, but the emotional intensity ramps up. This is where Swizz’s smarts as a pop-rap producer and X’s knack for making unique personal trials feel universal sync up. “Skyscrapers,” a track that has been floating around in some form since at least 2012, is the perfect fit for the pained perseverance DMX expresses in his deep cuts — and the rare occasion that taking Kanye off a song results in a more soulful one. “Take Control” is cut from the same cloth as “It’s All Good” and “What These Bitches Want,” the overly horny “song for the ladies” that flirts with outright offensiveness but sneaks into your good graces thanks to a smooth hook, this time on loan from Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” (Yes, the sample cost a chunk of the publishing.) Retracing his steps seems to reinvigorate DMX, and that makes Exodus sting. It was the groundwork for a new career path, not the unexpected end of the road, though Swizz notes that his friend had at times referred to this album as his last one, either voicing an eerie premonition or a serious commitment to disappearing into gospel music in the years to come, as was the rapper’s stated intention in his final days.
Exodus documents DMX tightening up flows and figuring out how to get the most out of a gruffer, less agile instrument. It’s not quite as sharp as the ’90s classics, but it makes a few of the albums from the aughts seem bloated. And it’s a vast improvement on 2010s exercises like the mixtape titled Mixtape and the Greatest Hits With a Twist comp, on which the rapper rerecorded his classics a decade before Taylor Swift would do the same. In its finest moments, which come when X lets his guard down and opens up about the fallout from a wild life and the missed opportunities to get closer to his children that haunt him at night, Exodus is a catalogue of everything we’ll miss now that DMX is gone. He was supposed to grow into the grizzled, hardscrabble elder, sharing how he crept back from the edge, how to restore balance when our lives are out of whack, so we’re aware of the pitfalls of the streets, the party life, and the music business. You can hear it in “Walking in the Rain” and “Letter to My Son (Call Your Father),” the hard-won advice wrung from adversity, the soul-searching honesty. Not knowing where DMX might have taken his craft next is painful.
Not being entirely certain that we (both this magazine and rap consumers writ large) would be talking about this album at all if it had been released while X was alive, or if it would have made it past our vague disinterest in anything that isn’t brand-new and modern, our inability to rally in numbers around anything that doesn’t announce itself with a promotional push … is something we can work on. Check in on your heroes, especially in lean times. Unsubscribe from ageism in music. You’re going to want to have someone speaking astutely to your concerns when you’re washed, no matter how far off that may seem. The gift never goes away, but it does at times require nurturing. And nurturing doesn’t happen if we’re sending our greatest poets out to pasture in middle age. This is something DMX seemed to see clearly. “I ain’t 50 years old for nothing,” he says in “Hood Blues.” He knew he was here to lead.