The Passion of the DMX

Easter Sunday. Billions of Christians around the world are celebrating the death and resurrection of their Saviour, Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, I’m at a DMX concert in the basement of a club near Times Square. I’m enough of a heathen not to feel remotely conflicted about this, but the holiday’s spiritual import seems to be weighing on our headliner:

“Obedience is better than sacrifice,” DMX says to the crowd near the show’s end. (It was actually more like, “OBEDIENCE!!! is BETTER!!! than SACRIFIIICE!!!” but for my editor’s sake I’m going to ask you to apply your own DMX-style yelling to all quotations herein.) “Before we give God what we think he wants, how ‘bout we just do what the fuck he tells us to do?”

“If you don’t like it, get the fuck out! Like I said, I am a warrior for the Lord… I will fuck you up in the name of Jesus!” He pauses, grunts. Then: “There’s only one way to wrap this up: In the name of Jesus, let us pray.”

So OK, DMX is an imperfect Christian, which makes sense given he’s also an imperfect father, driver, dog owner, and FBI impersonator. It would be easy, and not wrong, to dismiss the 45-year-old rapper for his crimes and his contradictions, not to mention his distinctive but always limited talent. In fact, I was nervous before the Easter concert that DMX’s only remaining audience would be irony-chasing assholes, hungry for a train wreck.

Surprise: A DMX show in 2016 still attracts a lot of true believers. Bigger surprise: I can totally understand why.

Live music, at its best, has the power to both move and entertain us. Live DMX has the power to do only one of those (guess), but what DMX lacks in emotional depth he compensates for with an eagerness to please that’s almost childlike in its purity. Minute for minute, this was among the least-boring concerts I’ve seen, an hour-long cascade of escalating “WTF?” moments soundtracked to all my favorite angsty rap songs from middle school. I’ve wasted $29.50 on far less.

Minute for minute, this was among the least-boring concerts I’ve seen.

It’s hard to tell how much of the absurdity is intentional. When DMX does his best Borat impression (“High five! Sexy time!”), the joke could be that he’s making a reference literally a decade past its sell-by date, or he could just think Borat’s really funny. When his first extended sermon (“When God is for you who can be against you?”) leads straight into gangsta anthem “Party Up” — which housed the single largest moment of crowd participation of the night, on the line “I just gotta get my dick sucked” — it could be a knowing juxtaposition, or it could be dumb inconsistency.

DMX’s long history of — let’s be generous — erratic behaviour makes it easy to believe he has no idea what he’s doing. But then again, there’s also a long history of (usually white) critics being dismissive of hip hop’s capacity for self-awareness and exaggeration. To assume that DMX is completely unaware of how his vulgar, vaguely blasphemous antics will be received seems condescending. If we can accept that the hedonism of white nonsense like Mötley Crüe was partly an act, we should be able to at least consider the possibility that DMX’s persona is being performed for our enjoyment.

And anyway, the show moved too quickly to dwell on questions of authenticity. DMX was onstage for maybe 70 minutes, tops. He went from a hoodie, to a T-shirt, to a wifebeater, to shirtless within the first 10. His setlist was kind; he stuck to the hits: “X Gon’ Give It to Ya,” “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” “Where the Hood At,” and other songs that felt edgy as fuck when I was too young to drive. He dissed Beethoven, at one point: “We like the music, we enjoy the music, but how can you be motivated without words?” He thanked the audience both sweetly and crudely, sometimes in the same breath: “Being onstage in front of a roomful of people who love you is better than the best pussy I’ve ever had.”

The room never stopped smelling like pot.

I have a theory that many hip hop super-fans can be dismissive of lesser genre acts in a way that you don’t necessarily see happen with other distinct genres, like punk rock or soul music. There are understandable reasons for this. For one thing, hip hop has faced a long (and arguably still ongoing) fight for respect as an art form. For another, great hip hop can be so unbelievably great it’s hard to descend from the peaks.

But I love that there’s enough room in hip hop’s big tent for both arty, complicated work like The Life of Pablo or To Pimp a Butterfly and lowbrow pleasures like DMX telling a crowd, “I’m gon’ fuck all of you, ‘cause you don’t understand — I got 15 kids!” You need lowbrow, sometimes.

One more thing: That prayer that DMX closed the show with? Actually pretty good! “Even when we’re suffering, he sees us. When you’re lost he will leave the flock to find the one, just like any father trying to find their son.”

I’m not about to convert, but it’s a more compelling image than I’ve heard from any subway preachers lately. And he may have saved one soul yet. On the way out of the venue, I passed a woman telling off her boyfriend: “You play too much. You need Jesus. You need God. Like DMX said.”