Blood, when associated with God’s only begotten son, is considered a cleanser of sin. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin,” as written in 1 John 1:7-10.
On December 22, a mere 72 hours before the 1998 Christmas celebration, holiday shoppers — at the least — looked upon the cover of DMX’s newly released sophomore album, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood.
That they just glanced is unlikely; the cover demands a prolonged gaze. How could it not when blood — a lot of blood — drips from the man’s body as if he replaced bathwater with the vital fluid of slain enemies. Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood is visually striking in ways Christmas isn’t. Striking in ways most album covers fail to be. There’s no sense of cleansing in DMX’s body language, and the presence of Jesus isn’t apparent in his cold stare. He doesn’t appear as a symbol of purity or innocence, or without sin. DMX is something else entirely, beyond the definition of ordinary.
The early life of Earl Simmons wasn’t ordinary, either. He existed outside the plane of what most of us understand to be normalcy. How he channeled the joy and pain of a man who was never a boy through the art of rap made him, in his heyday, one of hip-hop’s most arresting titans. Much like viewing the classic cover shot by Jonathan Mannion, to hear Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood is to become fixated. The kind of fixation that doesn’t wane, but grows stronger over time as the realization sets in: there will never be another. Pressing play to hear an album begin with such jarring lyricism as “I got blood on my hands and there’s no remorse, and I got blood on my dick cause I fucked a corpse” foreshadows what awaits. Again, nothing ordinary.
In a 2002 review of Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood for AV Club, Nathan Rabin wrote, “On the booty-shaking ‘It’s All Good,’ he slips and slides atop a sample of ‘Heartbeat’ that’s so insidiously funky, not even Dee Dee King or Brian Austin Green could have fucked it up.”
Rabin was wrong. Yes, the infectious sample has a funk that’s musically irresistible. But what he didn’t consider — or at least failed to acknowledge — is that most men aren’t born with such murderous conviction preloaded into their vocal cords, designed to explode after every bar. Name a rapper, any rapper, and the results would pale in comparison.
Naturally, during the height of his reign, DMX projected timeless angst burning from within that doesn’t naturally manifest in artists. Yet it’s the weapon he wields against the fire, a gift from above that was molded in the depths of below.
Angst is felt throughout the entirety of Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. The Yonkers-based rap star doesn’t spit as if he’s reciting lyrics. He raps with the passion of a pastor delivering scriptures to an audience that recognizes the heat of hell. DMX isn’t preaching to save souls but sharing how it feels to be engulfed in flames. These aren’t stories of disciples, but tales of people who shoot or are shot at, drugs that are abused or dealt — all the various damages done to one’s soul when life is lived in the beast’s belly. “Believe me when I say, before light, there was dark,” he recites at the beginning of the stellar, Mary J. Blige-assisted “Coming From.” It’s a visceral message affixed to a sincere poem about his life, one that captures the album’s heart of mesmeric darkness. Mary’s demented laugh at the end of his second verse alone makes the song unforgettable.
“Nigga knows the only thing I’m really scared of is slippin’,” X barks on the pulsing, Swizz Beatz-produced warrior anthem “Keep Your Shit the Hardest.” The fear of being caught by adversaries is a consistent shadow cast over those who live and die by the gun. He’s not claiming invincibility, yet it’s not simply death, but the chance of staring down a barrel around every corner that keeps his blood boiled. Three songs later, on “Slippin’,” he reveals another possible form of falling that scares him — self-destruction. DMX begins his sermon with a heartfelt reflection on his life (“To live is to suffer, too. But to survive… Well, that’s to find meaning in the suffering”) before tackling the demons he’s faced and the Biblical struggles with addiction, all while making clear that slipping and falling aren’t final. Getting up is an option, a lesson as timeless as the song. “Slippin’” is not the grand moment of light on a dark album, but a moment of clarity in the center of purgatory that may lead to paradise.
In 2014, during a Q&A with fans on Facebook, Kendrick Lamar cited the first verse of “Slippin’” as his all-time favorite. The selection was a testimony to the lasting effect of X’s raw, unforgettable lyrics. Lamar is hip-hop’s most successful student of DMX’s school of visceral, God-fearing hip-hop. Before Lamar was talking to God as a homeless panhandler on “How Much a Dollar Cost,” there was DMX conversing with the man above on “Ready to Meet Him.” Predating Lamar’s fight against Lucy’s temptation was the exquisite storytelling of DMX’s detailed atrocities with Damien on songs like the Marilyn Manson-assisted “The Omen.” Even DAMN., the Compton rapper’s fourth full-length album, confronts the deep-seated worry of damnation, a world in which DMX’s music thrives.
The decision to have producer Swizz Beatz — who contributed one track (“Ruff Ryders’ Anthem”) to DMX’s major-label debut It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot – provide production on 10 of the album’s 16 tracks gives Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood its own sonic palette of aggression and angst. The two are musically aligned, kindred spirits who had the vision of a sound that could eclipse the light brought on by Puffy’s shiny suit era. Monstrous records with blistering bounce like “Keep Your Shit the Hardest,” “No Love 4 Me,” “Heat” and the title track solidified that hip-hop’s most feared beast had found a scientist who could produce music that mirrored the fiery tumult of his aggressive style.
Following in the footsteps of his classic debut, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — X’s second album release of 1998 to accomplish this feat — and more than doubled the first-week sales of It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot with 670,000 units sold. According to an oral history conducted by The FADER, Lyor Cohen, then co-president of Island Def Jam Music Group, challenged DMX to complete a second album by the end of 1998. If he completed the mission, he would be awarded a million-dollar bonus. Thirty days later, the Ruff Ryders warhorse returned with an album worth every penny.
DMX isn’t a misfit reindeer with a glowing red nose, nor a jolly-souled snowman brought to life by a hat of silk, nor an overweight home invader who climbs down chimneys to leave gifts for the good and coal for the contumacious. But, with the release of his sophomore album, he achieved a triumph — musically, commercially, and culturally — deserving of a carol that should be sung every December.
Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood isn’t a Christmas album. It’s a timeless Christmas miracle. There will never be another.