...And Then There Was X was released one year after his sophomore project, Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood, and continues in his tradition of naming his albums in the most pretentious way possible. It was accompanied by three hit singles and a heavy promotional push from Def Jam Records, which caused it to eventually move over five million units, which is virtually unheard of in today's climate. Seriously, can you picture someone like A$AP Rocky or 2 Chainz moving five million copies of any of their albums? It's almost as though DMX's fans had never heard of Napster in the late 1990s or something.
After unleashing his first two solo albums in 1998, Earl took his time in crafting ...And Then There Was X, although the subject matter and the guest list seems awfully familiar. Dogs, specifically the sounds of them barking, play a large role, as does producer Swizz Beatz, whose presence had been increasing exponentially on both DMX and other Ruff Ryders projects after he kept churning out radio hits. There's also some talking to God, some tales of hustling, and, oh, what is probably the biggest hit of X's entire career, "Party Up (Up In Here)", a song that is almost certainly playing on some radio station's hip hop flashback hour as we speak.
As I haven't listened to a DMX album in its entirety for nearly five years, and have never actually listened to this project at all (I'm familiar with the singles, but that's the extent of it), I'm curious to find out whether my decision to stop giving a shit about DMX (which I apparently alluded to back in 2008. Oooh, foreshadowing!) was the correct one. I have a feeling I was right, but I'm trying to go into this with an open mind, so...
1. THE KENNEL (INTRO)
Do you think DMX's handlers look at him sideways or roll their eyes whenever their boss starts barking like a dog for no reason? And does this behavior manifest itself outside of the studio, such as in prison, in rehab, in bed, in line at the bank, or while walking himself in the park? The world will never know the answers to these questions.
2. ONE MORE ROAD TO CROSS
Swizz Beatz's production is frustrating as shit, as is the lame-ass hook, because both of those elements obscure the fact that X is actually on fucking fire on “One More Road To Cross”. His three verses sound like conversations (albeit conversations that do their damnedest to rationalize various assorted criminal activities) that just so happen to rhyme, and Earl is in full control of his flow, speeding it up and slowing it down at will, with passion and anger punctuating every other bar perfectly. Perhaps I was missing out by not picking ...And Then There Was X up way back when. Not bad.
3. THE PROFESSIONAL
DMX takes on the guise of an awfully chatty hitman, explaining all of the many stealth tactics he would utilize to kill the listener in many ridiculous ways without you ever seeing it coming. Which is fine and all, aside from the hook, on which Earl shouts, “Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!” to mimic the sound of his weapon of choice, and I've never heard of a professional killer shouting shit like that out loud. Come to think of it, who has ever heard of a professional killer discuss his process at all? This shit would have been more appropriate as an instrumental, with Earl occasionally chiming in with short breaths and sound effects representing what he hears around him, rather than having our host actually tell the listener what's running through his mind. Which, admittedly, makes absolutely no sense; one doesn't buy a DMX album to not hear their hero rhyme over the beat. Anyway, X sounded alright, if not fully committed to his own idea, but the P. Killer Trackz beat wasn't strong enough to carry the subject matter.
I actually liked Dame Grease's underrated beat, which, yeah, I know, you would think I wouldn't, but here we are. Surprisingly, I felt X's performance was a bit too subdued for it, though, which is a strange comment to write about a dude who kicks the track off by barking like one of his beloved dogs. Still, a clear a concise DMX can still captivate an audience. "Fame", which only really touches on the concept of fame being a bad thing to pursue for a few seconds or so, is a pretty nice deep cut to show off your knowledge of DMX to hip hop heads who are only familiar with, say, Exit Wounds. Huh.
5. ALOT TO LEARN (SKIT)
6. HERE WE GO AGAIN
X exclaiming, "This is not a fucking game!" at the very beginning would seem to signal a tunnel banger, but then DJ Shok's beat kicks in and Earl uses the remaining time allotted to wax poetically about the vicious cycle of hustling and how it affects both himself and a young shorty he takes on as his apprentice, who (of course) betrays him and who is eventually (of course) murdered by our host. This isn't the type of street tale that I like hearing over this quiet of an instrumental: I think only maybe Scarface could have made this shit actually work. Good for Earl with the trying new things and looking from different, calmer perspectives, though.
7. PARTY UP (UP IN HERE) (FEAT. SWIZZ BEATZ)
Probably X's biggest song, one which you will undoubtedly be familiar with if you've either listened to the radio at any point in the past fourteen years, or if you've forced yourself to sit through all of Kevin Smith's films like I have (even though Dogma, although flawed, is the guy's last good flick). The Swizz beat is catchy as shit and easy to watch girls dance to, which is a hallmark of any good club joint, and Earl is appropriately amped up with his threatening, bullshitting lyrics, some of which can easily be construed as a potshot aimed at a certain Marshall Mathers. Go ahead, skim through the lyrics on OHHLA or Rap Genius and tell me that this isn't at least a partial dis. Anyway, "Party Up (Up In Here)" may be radio-friendly filler, but it's entertaining radio-friendly filler, and it's still enjoyable today, which is all that matters anyway.
8. MAKE A MOVE
The P. Killer Trackz overly-dramatic beat implies a "Stop Being Greedy" (from It's Dark And Hell Is Hot)-esque type of song, but "Make A Move" turns out to be a rather lazy first-person tale of selling drugs, one that swipes its imagery from every possible source that you're already familiar with (thanks to television, movies, and every other rapper in existence) to create a tale that already sounds recycled, and this was the first fucking time I've ever heard the thing. I'm used to hearing DMX's entrepreneurial side (see: "Ruff Ryders Anthem", a song about big box chains driving mom-and-pop shops out of business), but this shit was awfully poor. Moving on...
9. WHAT THESE BITCHES WANT (FEAT. SISQO)
...And Then There Was X's third single features then-popular R&B singer (and labelmate) Sisqo, who had just tasted solo success with his ubiquitous "Thong Song" after being a part of the quartet Dru Hill (whose founder, Nokio, actually produces this track), in a bold and obvious attempt to get radio programmers to pay attention to DMX. (Tellingly, the radio edit is titled "What They Want", in an effort to get the female audience to not notice that DMX and Sisqo are rapping and singing, respectively, about bitches.) Earl's ode to trying to figure out what a bitch wants, what a bitch needs, and whatever makes a bitch happy to set them free features the now-infamous second verse, where our host runs down a list of nearly fifty different women (or, rather, "bitches") in lieu of actual lyrical content: it is by far the most insane thing DMX has ever recorded, because it's so fucking silly. And kind of awesome, in its way. But the song as a whole? Kind of dull and aimless, although Nokio's beat is harder than the track itself deserves.
10. WHAT'S MY NAME?
The first single lifts a surprisingly good Self Service and Irv Gotti beat into the stratosphere with an energetic DMX performance that features him at his release-the-dogs-or-the-bees-or-the-dogs-with-bees-in-their-mouths-and-when-they-bark-they-shoot-bees-at-you best. I like to make fun of the hook in a wholly unoriginal way, singing "I can spell my name!" right after our host, well, spells his name. But I still enjoy this shit today. At his height, DMX's boisterous voice was capable of pumping you full of energy, almost like aural cocaine. as effectively as the Mash Out Posse. No, I'm not joking.
11. MORE 2 A SONG
I couldn't get into this song. There really wasn't all that much to it, regardless of what the title would lead you to believe. X spends the duration of the track trying to convince the listener that there's more to being him than the music, jewelry, clothes, and the hos, but the problem is that, well, of course there's more to him than all of the glitz and materialistic trappings, duh. Renders the entire track pointless, really, and the beat doesn't change my mind.
12. DON'T YOU EVER
Another Swizz Beatz-led attempt at a rowdy street banger that ultimately sounds hollow and unconvincing. The hook disrupts the flow of the track, which wasn't very smooth to begin with, and although I realize he isn't really actually doing this, every single DMX bar sounds like it was lifted from every other goddamn song in his back catalog (save for "Born Loser", maybe, since that was pretty fucking close to what J-Zone would write if he had a voice like Earl). This shit was weak, son.
13. THE SHAKEDOWN (SKIT)
14. D-X-L (HARD WHITE (FEAT. THE LOX & DRAG-ON)
The mandatory Ruff Ryders posse cut isn't hampered by the presence of a chorus until the very end, which was an unnecessary artistic move. Before that shit happens, though, DMX shares the stage with all three members of The Lox (with Jadakiss, predictably, sounding the best) and Drag-On, a rapper who will go down in hip hop history as "the guy who sounds like that other guy" (although, to be fair, on this song he sounds like the imagined offspring of Cam'Ron and Earl). X brings up the rear, as most hosts tend to do on posse cuts, and does his beat to knock it out of the park, but his efforts are thwarted by Dame Grease's boring-as-shit instrumental, which sounds like it cost about three dollars and a half-eaten pack of Rolos. Between the five rappers featured, surely they could have pooled their money together and found something more polished to spit over, right? Groan.
15. COMIN' FOR YA (FEAT. SWIZZ BEATZ)
In case you had forgotten, DMX loves his dogs, and producer Swizz Beatz scratches in (poorly, I might add) some barking canines at the beginning to set the proper mood. The beat wasn't all that awful, actually: at least Earl sounded comfortable rhyming over it. Swizzy's hook was really fucking stupid, though, as he rhymes the phrase "for ya" with itself multiple times. X walks away from this track a winner, in that he didn't suck, which is all I can ask for these days. Curse these lowered expectations!
16. THE PRAYER III
Because it isn't an Earl Simmons project unless he reserves an interlude with the intent of asking forgiveness for all of the sins perpetrated throughout the rest of the album. To his credit, he sounds sincere.
17. ANGEL (FEAT. REGINA BELL)
On ...And Then There Was X, Earl takes his prayer interlude to the logical next step, using "Angel" to speak directly with his Lord. As is appropriate for a track with this specific subject matter, X's performance is as clean as a whistle (what does that expression even mean, anyway?), and his verses admirably work around that limitation while he expresses his love and devotion, presenting himself (to the listener, anyway) as a conflicted man who is torn between his faith in his religion and his general day-to-day. He does thank God for the ability to preach his message to a large audience, and to his credit, I believe him, although I felt that Irv Gotti's beat wasn't compelling enough, and the sung chorus was fairly cheesy.
The final song on ...And Then There Was X is labeled as a bonus track.
18. GOOD GIRLS, BAD GUYS (FEAT. DYME)
...And Then There Was X should have ended with "Angel", but for some weird reason X decided to drop all of the "praise the Lord" bullshit for a hilariously misplaced back-and-forth battle of the sexes-type song with female rapper Dyme (yeah, me neither). The beat is poppy and never changes, which makes this shit difficult to listen to for long stretches. The hook is also nonsensical, since DMX merely poses a question about why good girls like bad guys, while Dyme takes it upon herself to explain why thugs sometimes want to be with classy girls, which defeats the entire assumed purpose of the song. This was left as a bonus track for a reason (it doesn't fit the rest of the project), but that doesn't explain why it had to see the light of day in the first place. My day will now be worse for having heard this song.
THE LAST WORD: First off, there's no way ...And Then There Was X deserved to move over five million copies. "Party Up (Up In Here)" is still a pretty good song, but the rest of this project has nowhere near the level of crossover appeal that would have been required for those sales to not have been trumped up by the Def Jam marketing department. And the majority of the beats on here aren't conducive to enjoyment of any type. However, the subject of this write-up successfully caused me to flash back to what hip hop was about in the mid-to-late-1990s, an era that DMX was one of the rulers of, thanks to his gruff flow and endless energy, and a wave of goodwill washed over me. The music may be the majority of my problem with ...And Then There Was X, but DMX himself proves to actually be consistent, and even entertaining to listen to today. Maybe I'm just in a better mood than I was in five years ago: I seem to remember writing that I fucking hated Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood, but maybe I just hated that dumbass title. ...And Then There Was X isn't a great album, or even a good one, but X's performances over most of it are enjoyable enough to listen to. I don't recommend a purchase, but maybe I was too hasty to jump off of his bandwagon when I did.