Amidst a slew of guest appearances, DMX's "Exodus" shines whenever the legendary MC steps to the mic.
For those who have come to appreciate the album as an immersive experience, it can be difficult to fully commit to a posthumous release. Part of what makes the best albums so engaging is their clear adherence to an artist’s vision. Though the process of its creation was reasonably well-documented, it’s difficult to assess how much of DMX’s Exodus was put together prior to his passing. Upon seeing the final tracklist, wherein X finds himself absolutely overwhelmed by guest appearances, it can feel as if he’s battling for screen time; a strange development, given that it’s his name lining the marquee.
Consider how engaged X was during his prime. Not only regarding his microphone presence, but his creativity, often unveiled through conceptual tracks like “ATF,” the “Damien” trilogy, and “The Professional.” Paired with a larger-than-life presence, his imagination fueled his reputation as one of the game’s most explosive innovators, a rare sort of performer who could captivate the mainstream without sacrificing his artistic integrity. Some of his biggest singles -- “X Gon Give It To Ya” and “Get It On The Floor” come to mind -- featured the same violent intensity as his deeper cuts. That’s not to highlight his peak in order to tear down his more recent material, as doing so is a major disservice to X’s personal, and often difficult, journey through life. But it’s important to realize how distinctive DMX truly was, and how unique and revealing his studio albums were.
Alas, Exodus falters in that regard by largely sidelining DMX for the duration. Though his technical prowess is not quite as refined as it once was, there remains an undeniable interest in hearing his perspective. Especially given how much the rapper has experienced, culminating in a renewed dedication to faith and a triumphant Verzuz battle with Snoop Dogg -- who actually hosted X in his studio to record the album in the weeks that followed. Though his longtime collaborator Swizz Beatz maintained that the guest appearances were arranged and recorded with X’s blessing, it’s impossible not to wonder what might have been had X been more present. Perhaps it might have led to a deeper understanding of his creative process at the age of fifty.
There are certainly glimmers of X’s signature honesty, especially on the climactic tearjerker “Letter To My Son.” In many ways the project’s emotional anchor, his words to his eldest son Xavier resonate all the more following his tragic passing. “And I don't know what you thought about my use of drugs, but it taught you enough to not use them drugs,” reflects X, attempting to find a silver lining with frank sincerity. “When you were a kid, you play with toys, okay / But you a man, put them toys away.” Devastating though it may be, the song’s ability to evoke an emotional response deserves recognition. Not only is it successful on that level, but it also stands out for being so clearly important to X, capturing his complexities and nuances that have fascinated and inspired his fans for decades.
Though Exodus certainly provides many standout moments throughout its forty-minute runtime, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the unfortunate scarcity of DMX himself. Of the thirteen songs, only three include two verses from X. The rest are either skits or collaborations, where all too often his contributions fall under sixteen bars. To be fair, his endurance levels during the recording process are purely speculative, and it’s entirely possible that X simply wasn’t compelled to pen an abundance of material. Luckily, he’s able to dominate on presence alone, his cadence giving inherent gravitas to any beat he steps to.
Introductory “That’s My Dog,” another album highlight, is fueled by the potent combination of Ruff Ryders nostalgia and a haunting instrumental from AraabMuzik and Swizz Beatz. Spitting alongside his longtime collaborators Jadakiss, Sheek Louch, and Styles P -- all of whom were right there on X’s debut It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot -- X sounds comfortable over the ghostly, militant production. “You ain't know, motherfucker? I'm from the home of the brave,” he raps, alluding to his Great Depression banger “School Street.” “Where we played in the mountains 'cause we lived in a cave / When I came into the game, I crashed through the wave / I'm the best, somethin' that I'm takin' to the grave.”
The star-studded lineup of “Bath Salts” is attention-grabbing in itself, a gathering of three hip-hop legends that Swizz Beatz has been holding on to for years now. After JAY-Z sets the tone with a notably dated verse, jarring alongside the example set on 4:44, Nas proceeds to unleash a clinic with the spirited hunger of a battle rapper going second in a heated round. Positing X as the grand finale, to quote another of his many classics, “Bath Salts” effectively highlights how DMX might fare in the new millennium. Rough around the edges, brimming with violent conviction and a dog’s feral energy. Despite having its age break the album’s immersion to a degree -- for whatever reason, JAY threw in both a Kardashian reference and a nod to Halle Berry’s Catwoman -- “Bath Salts” shines as an alignment of three rap titans, though lack of a clear throughline prevents it from reaching the heights of a classic hip-hop posse cut.
The same detachment plagues some of the many collaborations on Exodus. Though tracks like “Dogs Out” with Lil Wayne and “Money Money Money” with Moneybagg Yo are certainly enjoyable as standalone songs, it feels like they were arranged and put together in a whirlwind attempt to capture attention. Thing is, DMX’s fans were already enraptured by his comeback without the presence of a Weezy or a Moneybagg Yo, capable though they may be. At worst, they occupy space that would have been better reserved for an additional DMX verse. Considering that X had been documented in the studio working on the album for some time, one has to wonder how necessary these inclusions were. It’s especially hard to nitpick the presence of a Lil Wayne feature, and a solid one at that -- but given that Exodus has presumably become the final DMX album we’ll ever receive, every detour feels that much longer.
In the wake of his death, it feels counterintuitive to place Exodus under the microscope for too thorough an analysis. Longtime fans will likely find much to appreciate throughout the album, if only due to the emotional response elicited by X’s return to rapping. The nostalgia alone is enough to give the project weight, though delegating Infra-Red and Cross -- Ruff Ryders who previously appeared on Grand Champ highlight "Untouchable" -- to a mere skit feels like a missed opportunity. The absence of Dame Grease was also felt, as his approach would have likely suited X far more effectively than the pop-rap stylings of “Skyscraper” or “Hold Me On.” And that’s not even factoring in the absence of Drag-On, who felt like a surefire inclusion given his longtime history as X’s collaborator; hearing his dexterous bars on a song like “Dogs Out” would have been a welcome addition.
Regardless of what might have been, a key reality remains. Nothing can take away DMX’s artistic accomplishments. He will always be remembered as one of the greatest emcees to have ever done it, as evidenced by the myriad artists who reached out to contribute to the project. Though it may have benefitted from a bit more polish in the mixing department -- and more time spent with the man of the hour -- you’d be hard-pressed to find an X fan who doesn’t find something positive to take away from Exodus.