Near the end of DMX's set last night at S.O.B.'s in New York, the returning rapper talked about the power of his craft. "I could fight off the Devil with the spoken word," he professed. Out of the spotlight for some time, he's had his share of demons to deal with - but throughout the night, X made it clear that his penchant for words is still his saving grace.
As fans piled into S.O.B.'s, tensions were palpable. A female DJ spun a scattered mix of bombastic rap and pop-rock between three nu-metal bands. The audience was as polite as a New York rap crowd can be, but by the second hour of shrieking and shredding, "D-M-X!" chants filled the sold-out hall.
Some ticketholders questioned whether the enigmatic rapper would show at all. Over the past decade, X has become as notorious for his bizarre, inebriated performances as he once was for his blistering lyricism and hulking movie roles. But the Dog soon found his way home, delivering a raucous, compelling, near-flawless performance that at once emphasized how much hip-hop has changed without him and how much he's grown for it.
DMX wasted no time running through his back catalog of hits, opening with mid-career gems "We Right Here" and "Who We Be." The frenzied audience barked rhymes back at the rapper without missing a word, and a fever pitch ensued when longtime collaborator Swizz Beatz joined the stage to perform their signature "Ruff Ryders Anthem." Swizz hyped X through legendary club bangers "Get It on the Floor" and "Get At Me Dog," before the two joined in deep embrace.
"Ain't nothing like being on stage with people that love you, people that understand you," DMX professed as Swizz took a seat on stage. Although their professional paths clearly forked long ago – Swizz was fresh from a Korean press conference, draped in his own Basquiat-inspired Reebok apparel – their chemistry felt as potent as ever.
Much of DMX's material, always ripe with autobiography, has become more poignant with age. "Stop Being Greedy," from his 1998 debut It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, found new relevance in today's political climate. "Y'all been eating long enough now, stop being greedy/ Let's keep it real partner, give to the needy," he rhymed, nodding to Occupiers across the nation. X appeared to have crystallized from the turn of the century, and the sea of stationary camera phones flanking him seemed almost out of place.
Mainstream hip-hop today feels much like it did when DMX first arrived at the dusk of Diddy's Bad Boy era: decadence and excess are the ideology, laid over a palatable melding of dance beats and R&B progressions. It's hard to imagine that X's narratives of struggle, poverty and conflict were once fodder for platinum albums and pop stardom. The irony wasn't lost on him: "Why do rappers nowadays just talk about everything they already got?" he asked rhetorically. "You got Patron in your cup? Good for you! But if you keep putting it in my face, I'm gon' take it from you."
The comments rang heavy after an interview that morning on New York's Power 105.1, during which he dismissed Rick Ross as a one-dimensional lyricist and scoffed at Drake. When one fan instigated from the crowd, DMX smirked. "Is [Drake] here? Nah? Well, there's no use talking behind his back then."
Despite such detours, the overall atmosphere was jubilant and celebratory. He cracked jokes, flirted with female admirers (in his own special way: "Sometimes you just gotta pull your dick out like 'Yeah, yeah, what you think of this?'"), and even passed around a bottle of Hennessy to the first few rows, insisting they all "sip, then pass." He took a few swigs himself, but the fit, sharp-witted DMX on display seemed a far cry from the substance-addled man that made headlines in recent years. He appeared very sober, and very happy.
DMX seemed eager to begin a new chapter of his life and career. He tested out some new material from Undisputed, his album tentatively due in the spring, including the Biggie-sampling thumper "Time to Get Paid" and the previously released "I Don't Dance." The response was lukewarm at best, but the crowd remained on his side as he launched into "Party Up," the biggest hit of his career and the most rambunctious moment of the night.
"There's nothing better than this, man," he sighed, before dimming the lights to perform the deeply introspective "Slippin'." For the first time in ages, New York City believed him.