Exodus (released May 28, 2021)
It’s no secret that Earl Simmons was a man of faith. Visibly tattooed on his neck is Exodus 1:7, which breaks down thusly:
And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.
It’s much more than just a reference to his big brood of 15 kids, it’s a nod to his legacy – one that, while largely ignored until his untimely death this past April, has cemented him as one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time. When DMX exploded on the scene in the late 90s, he almost instantly changed the landscape, swallowing up his shiny, pop-friendly peers and paving the way for bandanas, motorcycles and grittier sounds.
The Ruff Ryders became an actual movement. And the land was filled with them.
It’s the same legacy that reigns supreme on Exodus, DMX’s eighth studio album, one that once again hopes to inject the grimy authentic of hip-hop’s past into it’s more pop-laden present.
Though X is no longer with us, the album was completed with longtime collaborator Swizz Beatz shortly before he passed, ensuring that it maintains his original vision. No need to worry about label executives posthumously tacking on random, out of place features for clout – like that time Biggie’s ghost did a whole song with Cash Money. This FEELS like a DMX project.
“That’s My Dog” is the perfect way to kick off the album – it just feels RIGHT to hear The LOX spitting with X screaming WHAT over and over in the background. It’s a celebration of the pack mentality that took over for the 99 and the 2000s.
The Ruff Ryder fam aren’t the only guests here – in fact, Exodus is absolutely crammed with starpower, with pretty much everyone bringing their A-game. The legendary Jay Z/Nas/X “Bath Salts” collabo, which has been floating around for half a decade now, is finally made official here. Though the verses probably are a little dated (Jay Z’s specifically, with the mixing sounding a bit off) Nas absolutely steals the show:
Ha, let’s put success to the side
I’d still be this fly if I worked at Popeye’s
That’s a whole lotta spinach, whole game full of gimmicks
Make a fool out of yourself for a post on Akademiks
We are not the same, I am a alien
Hovering over your city, shutting down all the stadiums
Wiping out everything in my radius
Don’t play with us, y’all ain’t made enough
“Hood Blues” teams X with all three members of Griselda, the current MVPs of hip-hop, for a hard-hitting posse cut. It’s a natural paring – Griselda’s rugged throwback approach brings the same authenticity to modern hip-hop that X’s crew did in the 90s.
“Dogs Out” and “Money Money Money” pair X with younger contemporaries Lil Wayne and Moneybagg Yo, respectively. Wayne has been notoriously hit or miss over the past decade but does an admirable job here, though the song still fails to stand out among the album’s better offerings. “Money Money Money,” likewise, isn’t bad per se, but it quickly falls to the wayside. But perhaps the most curious team up, “Take Control” pairs the dogs X and Snoop over a smoothed-out Marvin Gaye sample. DMX certainly isn’t known for his slow jams but it sorta works in an awkward colonge-drenched-deacon-trying-to-seduce-usher-lady-at-the-church-picnic kinda way.
What does unquestionably work is whenever DMX gets introspective. Though the masses know him for his party starters, longtime fans know that when Earl Simmons opens his heart, that’s when his true artistry shows. His gruff tone sounds so good over to Alicia Keys’, well, keys, on “Hold Me Down” that you wonder why it took this long for them to pair up. Even better is the odd couple duo of DMX and Bono on the magnificent “Skyscrapers,” with lyrics that hit like a wrecking ball knowing Earl’s future:
I just wanna be heard, f*** the fame
My words will live forever, f*** my name
Father God, please give me the strength I need
I was born in the dirt, just like you planted the seed
Let me grow
The album wraps up with a tender ode to family, with “Walking in the Rain” featuring X’s youngest son Exodus and “Letter to My Son (Call Your Father),” a tear-jerking tribute to his oldest Xavier, with whom X had a publicly contentious relationship. Instead of placing blame one way or the other, it’s a call to find middle ground in times of turmoil:
I don’t know what you thought about my use of drugs
But it taught you enough to not use them drugs
When you were a kid, you play with toys, OK
But you a man, put them toys away
What I’m saying is stop thinkin’ like a child
‘Cause when it’s winter, it’s winter
Dog, you gotta realize you’re wrong
And we could’ve been best of friends all along
It’s an uncomfortable but sobering reminder that it’s important to have tough conversations while our loved ones are still hear to listen. Grudges weren’t meant to be taken to the grave.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge DMX fan but let’s keep it a buck: Excluding his first couple of efforts, DMX’s albums have always been notoriously inconsistent, which frankly had me a bit worried for this project. However, in terms of pacing, this might be X’s most consistent album ever – not bogged down by a bloated runtime or repetitive songs like past efforts.
Exodus likely won’t be the modern-day classic Swizz Beatz promised – there’s an noticeable (but understandable) weariness in X’s delivery that hinders his trademark frenetic energy – but as the closing curtain to his legendary career, it lives up to expectations.
The Dog has earned his rest. Now it’s up to the children of Simmons – that generation of fans who screamed Double R – to keep the movement alive.
Best tracks: “Bath Salts,” “Skyscrapers,” “Hood Blues”
4 stars out of 5