Posthumous albums, especially ones that were all-or-mostly completed before the artist’s death, are nearly always bittersweet, providing a look not only at what was lost but also what might have been. But DMX’s “Exodus,” which was nearly complete before his death on April 9, is even more bittersweet than most, marking not just a return to classic form filled with features ranging from Jay-Z and Nas (on the same song!) to Bono, Lil Wayne and Moneybagg Yo, but a reunion with longtime producer Swizz Beatz — the man who provided the New York rapper with the steely heft that made hits such as “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” and “Party Up (Up in Here).”
There’s even an eerie story with it: During a Zoom session with writers earlier this week, Swizz spoke of a recording session earlier this year in which DMX said, “I’ll give you one more take, Swizz, since this is my last record.”
Without reading too much into any of the above, “Exodus” is a grand yet unusually subtle finale from a raw-nerved rapper and angry, vulnerable lyricist with a lot on his mind.
Even though DMX and Swizz had a history reaching back nearly a quarter century, “Exodus” — named after one of X’s sons — is not a retread: In no way does it sound as if it belongs in the year 2000. Instead, the sound moves from warmly melodic to icily atonal to soulfully jazzy. It’s arguably DMX’s most complete and complex work, even if it’s not loaded with stream-racking bangers.
The album gets a fast-and-furious kickstart with “That’s My Dog,” an old-school NYC hip-hop reunion that sees DMX and Swizz joining forces with the Lox (Jadakiss, Styles P and Sheek Louch) — and then doubles down with “Bath Salts,” where Jay-Z and Nas come in strong over rich, thumping rhythms: Jay raps “To be loved, Shakespearean, experienced to be honest/ Jumpin’ off boats, hoppin’ off another cliff/ Every six months, I think I need a new bucket list”; Nas follows with, “My instincts guide me through this Kurtis Blow culture/ Good angel, bad angel sittin’ on both shoulders.”
They’re tough acts to follow, and the album does dip a bit on the Lil Wayne and Moneybagg Yo tracks, “Dog’s Out” and “Money Money Money.” The pair do little to elevate those songs, although Moneybagg was called in to replace a Pop Smoke verse, which Swizz said during the Zoom session was removed because it had already been used elsewhere. Likewise, the Snoop feature “Take Control” is goofy, although it’s buoyed by a smart sample of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”; still, we’d hoped for more from the rematch of last summer’s Verzuz.
Another song with a deleted feature is “Skyscrapers,” which Swizz recorded with Bono and Kanye West (it leaked in 2019). The revamp here finds DMX rolling through rugged verses: “That’s what it’s always been: joy with the pain/ But with the right perspective there’s somethin’ to gain/ Look for the good and the bad, like the sun and the rain.” Elsewhere, the slow, soulful Alicia Keys feature “Hold Me Down” — which may have been recorded as a live duet — is a beauty and the beast tag-team, wither her angelic vocals lofting above a dusky DMX bearing down on some stark realities.
The album’s closing tracks contain some of its most shining moments. Led by a brisk violin and a softly hammered piano, “Letter to My Son (Call Your Father), a duet with Usher, finds DMX delivering a plainspoken account of a family relationship gone cold (“I got more kids/ Hey, that’s just how it is/ I’ve known you longer, but I don’t love them less”).
Yet it’s the finale, “Prayer” — the only cut with no guests or even much instrumentation — that runs the deepest. Swizz’s open ambient drone allows DMX the church rant he always wanted to make: “Father please walk with us through the bad times as well as the good/ May we be heard and understood, from the suburbs to the ‘hood.”
“Exodus” may not have been intended as a swan song, but it’s a moving final chapter that is equally street, spiritual and sophisticated.