DMX didn’t rap as much as he barked. At his peak, he could ensnare listeners with a manic delivery and direct lyrics that often didn’t leave room for interpretation. It was visceral and in your face, and at the time he blew up, a foil to the glossy rap that characterized the era.
Blessed with charisma, a granite, made-for-superstardom baritone and a tongue that couldn’t help but speak the truth, X mixed in his hardcore tracks with confessionals that felt like blood-lettings (“Slippin’”) and on songs like “How’s It Going Down,” he could even get romantic. At his best, he could basically do everything and because of his honesty, he had no trouble trying to do so.
The result of his knack for storytelling and his all-around talent was tons of platinum plaques and a lifetime’s worth of indelible music for fans everywhere.
Today, in memory of X, who passed away of a heart attack on April 9, REVOLT takes a look at his 11 most impactful songs. Check out the list below.
1. “How’s It Goin’ Down”
While it was his menacing growl that made him famous, DMX (mostly) trades in the barbarics for charm on “How’s It Goin’ Down,” a surprisingly tender offering from his debut album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. Mixing a conversational flow and convincing warmth with frankness and details straight from the streets of Yonkers, X remakes rap love songs in his own image. Here, having your girl transport cocaine for you is just as ordinary as having her pick up something from the corner store, and threatening to beat up her baby’s father —rather than killing him — is a sensible compromise. X’s even-keeled delivery and a smooth Dame Grease beat sell the angle and as a whole, “How’s It Goin’ Down” proves he’s the whole package. The track was further immortalized when Drake interpolated the hook for his 2016 song “U Wit Me.”
Like Tupac Shakur before him, DMX cast aside two-dimensional gangsta bluster in favor of genuine emotion, combining aggressiveness with vulnerability for a compelling portrait of inner city survival. That approach is embodied by “Slippin,” a tragically emblematic song that stands as one of X’s best. Spitting over a forlorn saxophone sample from Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Moonstreams,” X sheds tattoo tears for his innocence as he reflects on being abandoned by his family and left in group homes and, eventually, to the streets of Yonkers to survive, a path that led to his storied battle with drug addiction. With striking autobiographical details and a somber hook that doubles as a motivational speech, “Slippin’” is as powerful a song as X ever released and in the wake of his death, it’s gained a tragic layer of poignance.
3. “X Gon’ Give It To Ya”
From the outset of his career, one thing was always clear: Whether it was violence, sadness, happiness or the sadness that can come after those things, X was going to give it to you, raw and unfiltered. So, with its imperial horns, marching band percussion and confrontational lyrics coated in manic energy, “X Gon’ Give It To Ya” plays out like a stylistic mission statement from the Yonkers rapper. “I’m a wolf in sheep’s clothing/Only nigga that you know who can chill, come back and get the streets open/I’ve been doin’ this for 19 years/Niggas wanna fight me? Fight these tears,” he raps, pouring out his soul in the process. This one peaked at No. 60 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but it got a second life after it was included on the Deadpool soundtrack in 2016. It was certified platinum in 2017.
4. “Ruff Ryders Anthem”
DMX’s most important single is one he didn’t even actually want to do. According to Swizz Beatz, who produced the track, X thought the track had too much of a rock influence for him to hop on, but Ruff Ryders’ co-founders Darrin and Joaquin Dean convinced him to take it on, and the rest is history. Featuring sitar keys and an instructional chorus that feels more like an army chant than the hook of a breakout single, “Ruff Ryders Anthem’’ distills the viciousness X would become known for. “Took it then we split it, you fucking right we did it,” he snarls on the first verse of the song, which plays out like an extended death threat. This wasn’t his first single — that honor belongs to his nearly as dope song “Get At Me Dog” — but, it is the one that crystallized his superstar status. Twenty-three years after its release, “Ruff Ryders Anthem” remains an anthem for the ages.
5. “Party Up (Up in Here)”
If rush hour traffic were a song, it’d sound a lot like “Party Up (Up in Here),” the raucous anthem that served as the second single from DMX’s 1999 album ...And Then There Was X. As its title implies, this one sees DMX let loose, and it’s all about the vibes — even if his customary death threats are still present. The hook is designed for repeating and the beat demands that you blast it as loud as you can, so it’s no surprise this became one of X’s most indelible bangers. It also peaked at No. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making it his highest-charting solo song ever.
Being that his debut album is called It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, it only makes sense that the devil makes a cameo appearance. Mr. 666 himself does just that on “Damien,” a song that finds X making a deal with a dude from ’round the way that happens to be Satan in disguise. Over the course of the track, a clinic for storytelling, X essentially sells his soul to the devil in order to level up in his career, and the result is a string of murders. Rappers making songs with religious overtones wasn’t necessarily new even in 1998, but this track shows X had more storytelling chops than he was given credit for and that fact, combined with the song’s ominous theme, makes it one of the most iconic in his catalog.
7. “4,3, 2, 1”
LL Cool J’s evisceration of Canibus was the story of LL’s “4,3, 2, 1,” but DMX’s charismatic turn on the track was another notable moment on his path to rap stardom. For this one, X combines casual threats and clever turns of phrase for a verse that further established his artistic ethos. “Let me get what’s between your sock, cause it’s better to give/Than receive, believe what I say when I tell you/Don’t make me put you somewhere where nobody’ll smell you,” he barks, with his last bar being the sort of inventive death threat only the best rappers can deliver. At this point, X, with his distinctive rasp and rugged lyrics, had built a name for himself with standout verses on Mase’s “24 Hours to Live,” The LOX’s “Money, Power, Respect” and more, so the buzz surrounding him by December 1997 was already crazy. Holding his own on a track with LL Cool J, Method Man and Redman only solidified his next-up status. With that in mind, it’s only right that “4, 3, 2, 1” reads like a countdown, because when it dropped, X’s career was ready for liftoff.
8. “The Convo”
On It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, DMX made time to dance with the Devil (“Damien”) and speak to God. “The Convo” is the other half of the equation. On the track, a precursor to 2006’s “Lord Give Me a Sign,” X asks God why he’s faced the hardship he has only to conclude that the man above was helping him the whole time. It’s an earnest early look at X’s spirituality, which would continue to be a fixture of his music.
9. “Who We Be”
Considering the fact that his first five albums debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, the idea that DMX was ever an underdog feels strange. But, before all that success, X was a boy who was abandoned by his family and left to languish in prison for multiple sentences over a period of years. He was part of the forgotten and dispossessed, and he speaks for them on songs like 2001’s “Who We Be.” Bouncing across urgent bass, X spits about the elements of life in list-like fashion, whether from the hood to universal things like your parents and a love-hate relationship with them. The track was nominated for Best Solo Rap performance at the 2002 Grammy Awards.
10. “Get At Me Dog”
“Get At Me Dog” was DMX’s first official single, and with its collection of shouts, barking ad-libs and ferocious bars, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate tune for him to start things off. The opening of the verse, in many ways, is a two-bar distillation of his entire career mantra: “What must I go through to show you shit is real?/And I ain’t really never gave a fuck how niggas feel.” The track went on to go gold just three months after it was released in 1998 and obviously, it was the first of many.
11. “Money, Power, Respect”
Leading up to the release of his debut album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, DMX had a string of stellar guest spots that helped get the world at large familiar with his sound. The LOX’s Lil Kim-assisted single “Money, Power, Respect” was one of them. Hopping on a track with other rap legends in the making, X more than held his own with a gruff delivery and memorably gruesome bars that could outmatch anyone else’s. Plus, this one peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, which is the best of X’s career.