Rapper and Ruff Ryders crew leader DMX gives new meaning to the phrase tortured artist. DMX, aka Earl Simmons, isn't so much conflicted as suspended somewhere between bloodlust and his religious conscience. You can hear it in the demonic savagery and desperate supplication of his raps. They animate and exhaust his spirit like a series of self-administered electroshock treatments. On nearly every song on his third full-length, the Yonkers MC celebrates his thuggery with imaginative sadism. Then he drops to one knee for forgiveness.
In purely aesthetic terms, DMX's distinctively gruff tone and stop-and-go cadences carry a visceral jolt independent of moral quandary. Yet with the same fleet of producers from the Ruff Ryders posse (Swizz Beats, Irv Gotti, Grease) laying down a conservative carpet of beats, " ... And Then There Was X" is stylistically no different than the other two disks DMX has dropped in the past two years, a pace and redundancy that make him either an artist obsessively wrestling with his demons or one aiming to get rich quick. With competing new product from Jay-Z, posthumous efforts from Tupac and Biggie and a new N.W.A. platter on the horizon, however, those who prefer less adulterated ultra-violence have plenty of other options.
If you buy this latest from DMX, it's because you believe that, more than any of his hardcore peers, he has incorporated elements of remorse and religious reverence into his persona, if not his heart. "Prayer III" is the most overt example, but hardly the only time when the human being inside the thug rears his less-ugly head. On the lead track, "One More Road to Cross," a minister baptizing the 28-year-old DMX fears his hands will be singed in the process. "I want to leave a mark/But it won't be the mark of the devil," DMX vows. But after a botched robbery --the normally crisp rhythm of his raps disintegrating in sync with the scenario -- he acknowledges that he will "lay my head in these flames." Likewise during "The Professional," he disrupts the rapid-fire flow of murder scenes to note that he "don't like to involve women and children," adding later, "I know I'm going to hell/That's my life." And on "Here We Go Again," a tale of killing a protigi after the kid betrays him, the tone is one of pure exhaustion.
Interspersed with all the hateful bile, these fragile moments may be too small or facile for many listeners to believe. But the contradictions aren't stronger than those embodied by the antiheroes of "The Godfather" movies or "The Sopranos." The primary difference is that the plot lines in gangsta rap hit closer to home: Tupac and Biggie are dead, Jay-Z just got busted over a stabbing incident and a recent issue of Vibe reported that the killing of a bodyguard for the rapper Kurupt may be linked to a recent Kurupt song -- reportedly pulled from his forthcoming album -- that lashes out at DMX for stealing his girlfriend. And you don't have to endorse violence to appreciate that those with notches on their belt are susceptible to their own private hell. As he has on previous records, DMX loudly announces during "One More Road to Cross" that "This is not a fucking game!/This is my life/This is what I know." I don't think he protests too much.