Happy 20th Anniversary to DMX’s debut album It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, originally released May 12, 1998.
It's Dark and Hell Is Hot. We all recognize this as an album title. But take a moment to read that title as a statement. Even if you don't know exactly what it means (I definitely don't), you can tell that it's an ominous phrase, one that conveys a state of bleakness. It speaks to the atmosphere that breeds some of the best music in hip-hop. Lots of rap songs are born from struggle and distress, and ironically they provide fans with joy and motivation. This irony is a fundamental part of hip-hop and if there's one artist that epitomizes it, it's the dog himself—DMX.
It would be an understatement to say that DMX comes from humble beginnings. The details of his background seem more like a movie plot than an actual life. As a kid, he was abused by his mother and dropped off at a reform school without warning. He became addicted to crack before he was old enough to get a driver's license. Once, he was jumped and beaten within an inch of his life—all over a crime he didn't commit. These experiences are bound to harden anyone who lives through them, and that's exactly what X reflects from the start of It's Dark. When you listen to the album, you don't just hear someone putting words together. Instead, you hear a man who has been imprisoned by his struggles and is fighting his way to freedom.
As the beat begins on the album's intro, it seems like a death knell is being sounded. But as the drums kick in and the rest of the beat fills out, the mood of the track moves from defeat to determination. This shift in sound correlates with the shift in life that X embarks on through his music. There's an air of, "I won't be stopped," in X's rhymes and vocal tone.
X raps, "Ill is all I've been hearing lately / N****s hate me, wanna duct tape me and make me / Put their brains on the wall, when I brawl / Too late for that 9-1-1 call / N****s stay beefing, but a lot of them bluff / But not me because I'm a n**** that can get out of them cuffs / You think a lot of them's tough, that's just a front / When I hit them n****s like 'What you want?' The battle turns into a hunt." The violence and vulgarity in these lines can be a lot to digest. But the scenes X portrays on the song do more than just terrify listeners. They convey that he's relentless, ready to bulldoze any roadblock that gets in his way.
The rage that comes across on the intro to X's debut makes it one of the hardest hip-hop songs you can find. It's only right that the cut once served as Mike Tyson's walk-out song. The song's attitude matches Tyson's approach in the ring, one of many parallels that exist between him and X. Like Tyson, X approached his field with tons of aggression. His words and delivery were usually filled with fury. X's voice packs the power of a haymaker, and his presence on songs is often as dominating as Tyson's performances during his prime.
The ferocity shared by Tyson and X shows up often on It's Dark. A prime example is "Ruff Ryders' Anthem," one of the biggest songs of X's career. The energy on the track is magnetic and a big reason for this is Swizz Beatz. "Ruff Ryders' Anthem" was the first of several collaborations between Swizz and X that to this day can turn a party into a riot. The energy of the production is high on its own, but somehow it's amplified by X's presence. His patented "WHAT?!" booms after each bar, becoming part of the beat just as much as the drum loop. And the chorus he raps sounds more like a war cry than a typical hook.
The high energy of "Ruff Ryder's Anthem" makes it one of the album's peaks. Yet the song's excitement doesn't keep X from reflecting on the valleys of his journey. The song finds him saying, "Then n****s wonder why n****s wanna die / All I know is pain, all I feel is rain / How can I maintain with that shit on my brain." In a song that's filled with prideful boasts and threats, X still provides a moment of introspection that's brief, but insightful nonetheless. This sort of admission is what makes X's debut so compelling. On the surface, the album fits the stereotypes used to demean street rap. But X lets his guard down in a way that many street rappers before him didn't, forsaking his persona to show more of who he is as a person.
X continues to give glimpses into his psyche on "Look Thru My Eyes." In the first verse, X explains how his reputation in the street made him the target for enemies he'd never met. Then in the third verse, he describes being in a position of power and deciding how to treat people who mistreated him in the past. These reflections come from a lifestyle that most would deem immoral. But X's thoughts are all guided by his moral compass, from having confidence in the face of danger to prioritizing responsibility over emotion.
Another revelatory track is "Damien," which utilizes fiction rather than the straightforward reflection heard on the songs mentioned earlier. X's rhymes present a dialogue between him and Damien, a character who presents himself as a "guardian angel," but proves to be more like the devil on X's shoulder. Damien promises to help X reach fame and fortune, but he also persuades X to be violent and indulge in drugs. This cautionary tale plays out over a Dame Grease beat that would be fit for a horror film. Together, they form a song that is eerie, especially when you couple it with all of X's struggles after the release of It's Dark. The song seems like a premonition that was unfortunately fulfilled.
"Damien" captures the ongoing battle between X and his demons, and the skit "Prayer" shows X turning to faith as an ally. Some may scoff at the skit, since the behavior X describes on previous tracks probably wouldn't be condoned by the Pope. But X's expression of faith isn't just a contradiction—it's reality. Everyone that believes in God is guilty of their own transgressions, so X's flaws don't forbid him from having the religious sentiments he shares on "Prayer."
In fact, X's faults help to explain why he shows so much passion on the skit. As he addresses God, X says, "Plenty of times you sent help my way, but I hid / And I remember once you held me close, but I slid / There was something that I just had to see / That you wanted me to see so I can be what you wanted me to be." His words here convey guilt for his missteps. But as the track's title suggests, X still has faith that he can be a better man.
The religious theme of "Prayer" is continued on the following song, "The Convo." But X doesn't quite turn into Kirk Franklin at the end of his debut. He returns to the rugged rap he's known for on the album's last song, "N****z Done Started Something." The song is one of the best posse cuts in hip-hop history, largely because of its impressive lineup. X raps alongside Ma$e and The LOX—the legendary emcees that helped Bad Boy Records build a dynasty in the late '90s.
Everyone on the song performs well, but X shows what makes him such a unique emcee. His voice alone raises the energy of the song as he starts his verse. There's a lot of aggression in his delivery, but it never causes X to lose control. He masterfully changes his flow every few bars and he intonates to highlight certain words. And in his last few rhymes, X erupts as if he's turning super saiyan. The verse is a microcosm of X's artistry, as both are unorthodox and commanding.
"N****z Done Started Something" is the cap of a remarkable album. Many fans took notice, as the quality of X's debut was matched by its commercial success. It's Dark debuted at No. 1 on The Billboard 200, selling 251,000 copies. The album's success spurred one of the greatest runs from a superstar in hip-hop. X would go on to become the first rapper to have two No. 1 albums in the same year after he released Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood later on in 1998. Hit singles, big tours, movie roles and platinum plaques all followed thereafter. From 1998 to 2003, X was a force to be reckoned with.
Yet, the demons X detailed on his debut continued to haunt him throughout his career. For years it seemed like his momentum had no end, but it was slowed down by addiction, legal troubles and other personal strife. Some people wonder how much more success X could have had under different circumstances. But I think we're better served appreciating what he actually accomplished, especially with his first album.
At a time when the rap industry was fixated on luxury, X represented hardship and offered hope to those living through it. He infused new life into hip-hop when the genre was still reeling from the deaths of Biggie and 2Pac. And the conflicting layers of It's Dark And Hell is Hot proved that DMX is an enigma. We don't fully understand him, but his work grips us nonetheless.