DMX blended horror, morality, and religious turmoil in the masterful "Damien" series.
Duality is a dominant theme in DMX’s music. Consider “X Is Coming,” a chilling contribution to the timeless classic It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot. On the track, which interpolates a Freddy-centric limerick from Nightmare On Elm Street, DMX indulges in his darkest fantasies. “I'm gunnin' for your spouse, tryin' to send the bitch back to her maker, and if you got a daughter older than 15, I'ma rape her,” he raps, in the album’s most haunting moment. “Take her on the livin' room floor, right there in front of you, then ask you seriously, whatchu wanna do?” Toeing the line between hip-hop and horror, X seems compelled to dole out the devil’s work. Worse, he appears uniquely suited for it. Who better understands the temperature of hell than a man known to visit?
On the same album, X dedicates a moment to address the Lord on “The Prayer,” a series that would go on to be a mainstay across his discography. While X appears unwilling to repent for his sins, he continues to seek the creator for guidance. “You give me the word and only ask that I interpret, and give me the eyes that I may recognize the serpent,” he says. “You know I ain't perfect, but you'd like me to try, unlike the devil who just wants me to lie, 'til I die.” In “The Prayer’s” delivery, a sense of cognitive dissonance emerges. Is X simply oblivious to the carnage he has left in his wake? His most brutal impulses have already been documented across the project. Such a contradiction is, in fact, a driving force behind DMX’s thematic appeal. He has seen the devil. Believed his lies. All the while, God’s presence remains, perhaps dormant, to keep him grounded.
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I SAW THE DEVIL
“Damien” feels like It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot's centerpiece. Between X’s alternating cadence, the haunting subject matter, and Dame Grease’s ominous instrumental, “Damien” stood out as an intriguing contribution. For one, the obvious parallel with "The Omen," in which a young boy of the same name turns out to be a conduit for a demonic presence. Off the bat, it’s clear that X is dealing with the diabolical, the serpent with the forked tongue. In X’s interpretation, Satan emerges through a mush-mouthed hustler, originally appearing under the pretense of being a “guardian angel.” Within X’s first interactions with Damien, promises are made. Though X attempts a rationalization process, his base impulses steer his course. It’s a tale as old as the Catholic Bible itself.
As the song progresses, X’s same violent tendencies from “X Is Coming” continue to plague him. The second verse finds him committing murder, only to be rewarded with his favorite trifecta: weed, liquor, and willing women. Damien even throws in a Mercedes Benz, on the condition that their unholy union remains intact. At this point, X appears willing to throw caution to the wind. The spoils are simply too bountiful. Yet even X, distant though it may be, has a breaking point. By the final verse, X is already enthralled by Damien’s soothsaying. When Damien sends X on a murderous mission, X is willing to oblige. Even when tasked with the murder of his own friend. For all we know, X’s moments of bloodsport are the same macabre nightmares referenced in “X Is Coming.” Given what we’ve received thus far, is it fair to suggest that X’s violent impulses only emerge when tempted by the Devil’s presence?
SNAKES, RATS, CATS, AND DOGS
D: Either do it or give me your right hand, that's what you said
X: I see now ain't nothin' but trouble ahead
Though chapter one of the "Damien" trilogy concluded on an unresolved note, X would revisit the saga on his subsequent album Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood. The duality of X’s personality raged throughout the project. “I got blood on my dick cause I fucked a corpse,” managed to coexist with the inspirational reflections of “Slippin.” Once again, X managed to be disturbingly violent and calmly pious. And once again, Damien came through to solidify his chokehold. “The Omen” found X teaming up with a self-professed “Antichrist Superstar,” Marilyn Manson. While Dame Grease conjured up a cinematic, almost Hitchcock-esque instrumental, Swizz Beatz brings the sequel deeper into the realms of cosmic horror.
Picking up where we left off, X has since recovered from a shooting. Naturally, Damien’s hoofprints are all over it. Even X’s once-mighty dogs are cowed by his presence. This time around, Damien has shed the veneer, forcing X to accept him for what he is. Within the opening moments, we learn of X’s recent murder spree, which includes the lives of “two kids.” It means little to the Devil, emboldened by X’s weakening resolve. Veiled threats begin to sneak into his rhetoric. “What, I ain't your man no more? Just because a n***a don't need a hand no more?” asks Damien, reminding X of the benefits his friendship has yielded. “You know how we do, if one goes soft, we all take the pussy and go up in her raw.”
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We soon find out that Damien is not above getting his hands dirty. When X’s cousin is murdered by the police, D vows revenge on X’s behalf. “I'mma use the same gun that you killed them two kids with Is that hard to live with?” he asks, prompting a “nah” from X. Once again, X’s violent urges overpower his rational sense. Remember that the devil’s bargains seldom end without a mess. Lo and behold, Damien blows up the entire police station. The body count continues to grow. Such atrocities prompt X to attempt an escape, only for Damien to issue a damning reminder. You sold me your soul when you didn't say no,” he gloats. It is only then that X turns to God, as he once did on “The Prayer.” “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” pleads the rapper. “With your help, I know the Devil won't win.”
“I’LL BE BACK, ALRIGHT?"
Though Damien was absent on X’s third project And Then There Was X, he reared his head once again on The Great Depression. “Damien III,” the final chapter of the trilogy, found P Killer Trackz behind the boards. Curiously enough, the musical development of the “Damien” saga mirrors the thematic arc, descending deeper into overt madness. For what it’s worth, something else has changed. The looming sense of violence that permeated his first three albums is largely absent on The Great Depression. It feels like X has finally achieved that coveted state of peace, teetering closer to “light” on the morality spectrum. Damien’s timing is impeccable. Greeting X like an old friend, he wastes little time in sauntering back into the picture.
Only X is prepared, keeping D at a distance. Clearly, lessons have been learned. For the first time in the saga, it is X that holds the upper hand. As the song progresses, however, Damien attempts to bargain and threaten in equal measure. When his offers of material wealth falter, he resorts to his true nature. “Got a wife and kids?” asks Damien. “Good thing they ain't come across them triflin' kids.” Despite the threats (threats he himself has realized in “X Is Coming”), X remains steadfast, claiming that he should have looked to God for salvation. By this point, it’s clear that X has broken free of Damien’s grip. He closes the song with a warning and a prayer, invoking Jesus’ aid in keeping the Devil from his life. Like that, Damien appears vanquished. But is the damage not already done?
In hindsight, there are many ways to interpret DMX’s trilogy. Those with a preference for horror fiction will likely find satisfaction with a literal interpretation; it’s certainly a chilling tale, in the vein of Stephen King’s The Man In The Black Suit. Another take is more psychological, with Damien himself representing the darker elements of X’s psyche. On another It’s Dark highlight, “Stop Being Greedy,” X previously waged war with himself, using various cadences to represent his dichotomous nature. In that sense, “Damien” works on a metaphorical level, depicting one man’s struggle between darkness and light. Either way, the religious undertones remain a constant. But does the story have a happy ending? On the surface. Evoking God’s will, DMX managed to close the door on his demons. Yet such forces never truly leave the premises. They still rap the windowpane from time to time.