Earl Simmons didn’t come out of the womb raging, growling and barking like a pitbull. That sound, the hard sound of DMX, was built on a childhood filled with abuse and brutality. It was fueled by the violent complexities of life on the street, and fused by the bluntly poetic contemplation of right versus wrong, of God versus Satan, of dominance versus sublimation, and of how high one could go (or get) while remaining down-to-earth and righteously real. With that, DMX, who died Friday at age 50, was a portrait of harsh contradictions, a trait he shared with his very best songs.

“Born Loser” (1992)

It was a far softer, flightier, even funnier DMX who made this his major label debut through Ruffhouse/Columbia. Back in 1992, his flow and the jingle-jangling production of this track was closer to an LL Cool J than the barking dog DMX would become known for — even though he does refer to himself as having “to scrap with a pit because I tried to take his bone.” Still, this single deserved more attention than it got at the time: a pink slip from Ruffhouse after “Born Loser” failed to win.


“Time to Build” (1995, Mic Geronimo Feat. Jay-Z, DMX & Ja Rule)

This naggingly insistent track from Irv Gotti protégé Geronimo not only pitted a growlier DMX against a fellow rough-edged MC (Ja Rule), it showed that X could stand his ground against another NY boroughs’ rapper, Jay-Z. Though this tough track set the stage for Ja, Jay and DMX’s Murder Inc. triumvirate, a planned album would never materialize as egos grew and feuds commenced. That’s one major missed opportunity.

“Ruff Ryders Anthem” (1998)

This is where and when things got real for DMX. Along with finding his true métier in a deeper, heavier bark, a hood survivalist’s philosophy (and spirituality) and a simpler, repetitive lyrical line, DMX met his match in the co-writing and co-producing muscle of a young Kasseem Dean, aka Swizz Beatz, and his steely, synth-driven groove.


“The Omen” (1998)

Considering that much of DMX’s most operatically metallic work with Swizz could be identified as “industrial,” it’s fascinating to hear a hook where X boxes with the goth-metal devil himself, Marilyn Manson. The hardcore aggro-rapper battling himself in several ideological voices also portrays DMX’s constant struggles between what was right and what was wrong within his soul.

“Slippin’” (1998)

This most haunting and genuinely soulful of DMX’s songs finds the rough rapper melodically adrift over a languid Grover Washington Jr. sample (“Moonstreams”), telling an autobiographical tale from childhood to… well, the song’s video is scarily prescient in that it shows DMX taking what could be his last ambulance ride. Beyond its crystal balling, “Slippin’” contains one of his slyest verses” “See, to live is to suffer but to survive / That’s to find meaning in the suffering / I’m slippin’ I’m fallin’ I can’t get up / Get me back on my feet so I can tear shit up.”

“Ready to Meet Him” (1998)

Tucked at the end of “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood” – his second album of 1998 – DMX embraces (and tests) his faith by conversing with God about what is, and what ain’t, right. For over seven minutes, and to a sparely orchestrated score and twittering rhythm from Swizz Beatz, DMX wrestles with existential dilemmas and ethical street dramas with sincerity and rage.

“Party Up (Up in Here)” (1999)

Combine Swizz Beatz’s most infectious beat and memorable car-honking melody with DMX’s easy-to-chant lyrics (“Y’all gon’ make me lose my mind / Up in here, up in here”) and you have an anthem indigenous to hip-hop, frat parties and sports rivalries all rolled into one.

“X Gon’ Give It To Ya” (2003)

From the start of the theme song for his 2003 crime drama “Cradle 2 the Grave” (and eventually “Deadpool” and “Deadpool 2”), DMX laid claim to the streets and to the pop-hardcore-hop game he all but created with the lyric, “Don’t get it twisted / This rap shit is mine, motherfucker.” This time, however, Swizz Beatz’s stammering pulse, combined with a militaristic rat-tat-tat rhythm, lent the track an added layer of complexity for the hyperactive rapper to bounce off like a pinball.

“Give ‘Em What They Want” (2006)

Fourteen years after his first shot with Sony, DMX returned to Columbia with a scorched earth, sing-song-y track, a Scott Storch co-write and production. Once that title’s repetitive woof gets in your ear, it’s rrrrruff to get out.

“Lord Give Me a Sign” (2006)

Another Storch co-write, another Storch production, this time with a persistently needling guitar click and an ever-so-slightly gentler DMX in a repeat performance of the reaching preach from 1998’s “Ready To Meet Him.” What’s different? “Since the last time we talked, the walk has been hard / Now I know you haven’t left me, but I feel like I’m alone.” That loneliness plagued DMX’s life and music — that hard walk — throughout his time on Earth, an empty hole you could only hope he’d fill before it was all over.