“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” The saying has existed as a disclaimer of how humans can be deeply rooted in their habits. Old dogs aren’t incapable of learning, but vehemently resistant. I thought of the ancient proverb while reading DMX’s 2011 Billboard interview when he first announced the album Redemption of the Beast. He proclaimed he was taking it back to the feeling of his debut album—the hunger, the energy, the hardness that made It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot a journey into the burning den of a man who touched the flames of Hell and lived to tell the tale.
In theory, Redemption Of The Beast would be the album fans desired most from X; his promise of recapturing the spirit of his acclaimed debut would excite anyone awaiting the valiant return of one of hip-hop’s most irreplaceable emcees. The old dog still had some bark, and we hoped he would still have some bite. Redemption of the Beast would later be released by Seven Arts Music in 2015, the very same label that released his Undisputed album in 2012. DMX spoke out against the album, an unauthorized release by a label he was no longer aligned with. A silent comeback, a silent withdrawal, and another sad circumstance in the life of Earl Simmons.
After last year’s health scare, hip-hop was just happy that DMX survived the great rapture of ‘16. X went on to have a fairly quiet, but successful year—he was sampled by Drake on the biggest rap album of 2016, joined Diddy on the Bad Boy Reunion Tour, and brought his 15th child into the world. There wasn't much new music, but the man seemed to found a bit of stability in a world where it was previously nonexistent.
Part of me believed at the age of 46 he was silently settling down, exhausted by a life that took him near Heaven and even closer to Hades enough times to destroy the soul of a weaker man. If any rapper deserved royalty checks and rest, it was surely the Yonkers legend. But just a few days ago, DMX and Swizz Beatz both took to social media with a brand new logo announcing their 2017 takeover.
The question is no longer whether 2017 will mark the return of DMX's music, but what this return will entail.
There’s a bit of hesitance before being arrested by an overflow of excitement. The issue that has been recurring in his career once exiting his late '90s/early '00s reign is finding a fitting voice and sound to reintroduce him into this modern age. It’s been on rare occasions only that he’s tapped into the former soul-moving bark of yesteryear, but artists can never truly revert to who they once were. Nothing can return Nas to being the wordsmith who penned illmatic, Jay can’t jump into the feeling of Reasonable Doubt, and no matter how much 50 may try, he is far from the circumstances that allowed him to produce a work like Get Rich Or Die Tryin'.
If X is still fixated on the same ideals he had in the studio for Redemption Of The Beast, my fear is he’s just chasing a tail he’ll never capture, no matter how hard he tries. XXL’s Christopher Minaya said of Undisputed, “Peaking so early in his career was a gift to his legacy but a curse to his longevity.”
Can he break the curse, or will he continue to suffer from its spell?
There’s still hope for the Dark Man. The best approach would be not to dwell on the past but on his personal present. He has been through so much in the last few years the material should simply write itself. What fans want most is to hear him tell his story—no rumors, no tabloids, no false reports—but real life told from the man who lived every second. If the narrative is focused on his slips, falls, and resistance to stay down then I’m here for the emotional thunderstorm that will likely throw us all into our feelings.
I don’t want a hit from DMX, I want honesty and unmerciful self-reflection. Production is also going to play a big part in this return, and I hope Swizz Beatz is creating with a bit more heaviness than simple trap beats. Swizzy will play a huge role in this resurgence. I would personally welcome X to expand his sound and touches new producers, especially if they cook up something specifically for him to devour. I'm sure there are young producers who are itching to give X the pack.
Deep down, I hope this is the DMX album where he allows himself the company of this generation's artists. Kendrick Lamar started rapping because of Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood—it should be unlawful to keep him away from being a part of this resurgence. There are other fitting emcees who can not only bring their talents but admiration for such a prominent figure in the culture. Also, don’t forget that backstage at a Beyoncé concert, Ja Rule, Jay Z and DMX all reunited last year for the first time in well over a decade. I wouldn’t get any hopes up that the Murder Inc trio could reunite, but the possibility is exciting. This isn’t the perfect time, but hip-hop would embrace them coming together as if “Murdergram” dropped yesterday.
DMX has nothing left to prove. He has gifted the world classic albums, inspired future emcees, and is cemented in rap history—his name will live on within the culture long after his physical body leaves this world. But while he’s here, while he still walks amongst us with a passion to create, I hope he is able to step into this new era with the same vigor and zeal as he once did.
It’s not about learning new tricks, but making the old ones exciting to a new audience. The blueprint that made him such a behemoth can still work if the execution is up to par.
Who knows, maybe this is the year DMX pulls off his takeover and finally returns to the top of rap’s mountain.
By Yoh, aka Flesh Of My Yoh, Blood Of My Yoh aka @Yoh31.
Art Credit: Sterling Bartlett