Ten years ago Undisputed would have been the perfect title for a DMX album. Even with a style that was undeniably rough, raw, and unapologetic, it was impossible to escape his music, no matter where you were. With hits like “Party Up”, “Ruff Ryders Anthem”, and “Who We Be”, he’s one of the few artists in hip hop that has been as equally embraced by the streets as he was commercially. He’s the only artist in music history to release five consecutive albums that debuted at number one overall on the Billboard charts…that’s number one across all genres – not just hip hop. He was even able to parlay all of his music success and fame into feature roles in a number of blockbuster films too, including Belly and Romeo Must Die.
But, it’s been six years since DMX’s last studio album, and 9 since he’s had any serious commercial success. While he’s only released a handful of standalone singles and a few mix tapes since then– all of which have met some severe criticism on the greater hip hop landscape – he’s been far from absent in the media. Granted, he’s always had a well-documented history of legal issues and drug use, but once his star started to fade, he became a lightning rod for strange press.
In 2004, he was arrested for impersonating an FBI officer at an airport, while in possession of a substantial amount of cocaine. He’s been locked up more frequently than the average person gets traffic tickets. He’s gone on several seemingly lucid, on-camera rants regarding the Illuminati’s control over hip hop. He’s even shown serious intentions of making the transition from “gangsta” rapper to evangelical preacher…
With a history like that, it’s safe to say that DMX – while undeniably one of hip hop’s legitimate legends – is a complex, and at times, troubled individual. While this writer isn’t a licensed psychologist, and wouldn’t venture to use any of these words himself, “crazy”, “insane”, or “unstable” could arguably be used to describe him. With that in mind, his about to drop 7th studio album, Undisputed, is probably what many would expect. It’s bi-polar, a bit schizophrenic, and ridiculously inconsistent.
Thematically, the Undisputed album is literally all over the place. At times, we get serious introspection and insight from an artist that has experienced all of the good that fame brings, but probably more importantly, the bad. On these tracks, most notably “I Get Scared” and “Slippin Again”, DMX comes with a much more subdued style than usual, from both a production and lyrical standpoint – complete with him singing a duet on the hook of the former. It’s a new look for him, but after all of the time and “issues” that have passed since we’ve seen new material from him, it’s a good one. In fact, these two songs might be the two strongest tracks on the project. They feel transparent, honest, and they’re a rare, unimpeded glimpse into the mind of one of the industry’s most interesting personalities.
However, the other angles he takes, even when he tries to recapture some of his old, raw energy, are a little less impressive. In the past, when DMX wanted to make a party record, it seemed like he could effortlessly yell for 4 minutes, and come out with gold (actually – platinum). He was never a technically impressive “hype” rapper that could cram multisyllabic rhymes where they shouldn’t be able to fit, but his raspy voice and knack for timing made for great music. Now, when he tries to come with a hard flow, he seems to stumble over himself more often than not. It’s almost sad to see, and at its worst, it’s downright painful.
In fact, “I Don’t Dance (ft. MGK)” might be the worst song in DMX’s entire catalog, and that isn’t an exaggeration. The would-be club friendly techno-inspired beat is definitely a gigantic step below most modern production, and DMX’s gravelly flow sounds ridiculous over it. Add in a rather uninspired, cliché ridden MGK verse, and the recipe for disaster is complete. Unfortunately, it’ll likely be the song on the album that gets the most attention, and it’s very similar in concept to the other “party” records on this one.
The third and last subject and style that DMX takes on, and extremely noticeably so, is his faith. Despite his frequent mentions of drugs, sex, and violence on several tracks, DMX also takes a very strong, almost seemingly fundamental Christian stance on significant portion the album. There’s even a two-minute long prayer that marks the mid-point of the project. Depending on who you are personally, you’ll probably love these tracks, glance over them without much thought, or think they’re ridiculously out of place. That’s entirely your prerogative, and without judging them on content, they are admittedly a bit “behind” when it comes technical rhyming ability and production. There definitely isn’t a “Lord Give Me a Sign” on this one though, which impressively blurred the lines between popular hip hop and gospel back when DMX released it in 2006.
Overall, Undisputed, is an admirable effort from one of hip hop’s most esteemed, important, and interesting artists. As strange as it sounds, DMX is at his best here when he holds himself back a little and opens up about his personal struggles. Unfortunately, he only does that on a small handful tracks. Throughout the rest of the project we get some interesting, yet technically deficient religious songs, and some misguided attempts at some of the high-energy party anthems he became famous for.
With that said, the Undisputed album won’t return Mr. Simmons back to the days when he was a staple in every situation that called for some raw, loud music. To be honest, it might even mark the end of those days for DMX. But, there are a few songs that might be “rotation worthy” for many, and a few moments that hint that he might be far from done in hip hop. If you’re a big DMX fan already, or late 90’s/early 00’s rap in general, this one’s worth the price of admission, if only to check in with a living legend. If not…there isn’t going to be much here for you at all. However, if you’re a younger hip hop head and haven’t heard much of DMX’s stuff from back in the day, use this as an opportunity to go educate yourself – just go through his old albums first.
2.5 out of 5
*Note: While it has nothing to do with the quality of the album, it should be mentioned that DMX is donating a portion of each sale of this album (which is seeing a Sept. 11 release) to causes that benefit the families of 9/11 victims.