By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Looking at rapper DMX's life is like watching someone punch himself in the face repeatedly. One can easily picture a cherubic angel sitting atop one of the big 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 fiercer 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 tracks—almost like he's barking, truly the sound of a man who calls himself "the dog." The good, bad, and ugly are 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 about repentance and praying to God.
Musically, the tracks run from 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 they're about shooting people on the streets or praising God, DMX's lyrics are raw and heartfelt, filled with tight rhymes wrapped around beats that make heads bob. Even if you can't specifically relate to shooting someone or being 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.
DMX is the only hip-hop artist in history to have five straight albums debut at number one on the Billboard charts, and twice in one year. He's sold more than 21 million albums worldwide. His 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 our website, but don't expect the album anytime soon. The new DMX record was originally scheduled for release this 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, 40, has been in group homes and jails, off and on, his whole life. 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 for decades, 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 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.
Over several weeks in late 2010, we were granted access to Earl Simmons, his management team, family members, and those who've worked with him on the new material. With the exception of two brief local television interviews, our access has been exclusive, right up until Simmons's most recent court date on charges of probation violation.
A lot of famous rappers from troubled backgrounds—including Lil' Wayne, T.I., and Too Short—have been jailed on various charges over the years. But DMX has sold more records in the U.S. than they have, and his rap sheet is the longest.
Many claim to find God in prison, and this guy's no exception. But DMX is different because he's clearly still straddling the fence. He's made a handful of gospel songs and says he wants to change. At the same time, he says he's "hungry and angry." And he hasn't changed. Remarkably, he doesn't seem to be faking either side.
Those close to Simmons say they're doing everything they can to help him get his life together, but he frequently ignores their advice and makes bad decisions. They all say he's had streaks of sobriety, but always backslides. They agree he has a potential hit record, but every time they get ready to release it, he gets arrested. But for some in Simmons's camp, like his manager Nakia Walker, there's more at stake than just his freedom and an amazing new album. "If we don't get Earl together," she says, "X is not gonna exist."