21 years ago, DMX delivered the original back to back.
DMX dropped It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot, one of hip-hop’s greatest debut albums of all time, on May 12, 1998. With it came the birth of a brutal and layered antihero, equally prone to spells of violence and reflective moments of spirituality. As B.I.G.’s death left New York’s throne vacant, a somber war of succession was being plotted in the record label board rooms. Lyor Cohen, then-serving as Island Def Jam’s co-president, smelled blood; DMX’s first album was an instant commercial success, debuting at number one on Billboard and going four-times platinum in fewer than two years. So the story goes, he pledged a one million dollar bonus should X be able to finish another album before 1998 closed out. Luckily for both himself and hip-hop at large, he decided to take up the challenge.
With the recording sessions taking place over a period of roughly one month, DMX’s boundless creativity was anchored by a looming deadline. Yet you’d hardly have noticed, especially after spending time with the classic sophomore album. Lyrically, X remains as refined as ever, exploring new thematic directions and revisiting older ones with a superstar’s confidence. Where his threats on “X Is Coming” were grounded in horrifying realism, his declaration of necrophilic habits on “Bring Ya Whole Crew” upped the ante in a delightfully macabre fashion. “Keep Your Shit The Hardest” found X pushed to his alpha dog extremities, carving out his own unique brand of gangsta rap. And of course, there’s “Slippin,” a song to which millions still relate to this day. For the first time, X was leveling to his listeners as an equal, laying himself bare and allowing himself to be judged as we might judge ourselves.
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One of the distinguishing differences between Flesh Of My Flesh and its predecessor is the sonic aesthetic. Where the majority of It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot’s rugged and gothic production was handled by PK and Dame Grease, ten of Flesh Of My Flesh’s sixteen tracks were laced by Swizz Beatz; for some context, Swizz only handled a single track on X’s debut, the classic “Ruff Ryders Anthem.” An in-depth interview with The Fader found Swizz reflecting on his time working with X, explaining that the majority of It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot was done during his high-school tenure. “I was pissed, like, ‘Y’all went and did this without me?’" recalled Swizzy. “My uncles made it pretty hard. They were like, ‘If you’re messing up in school, you can’t be around this.’ So I just focused on school and getting my grades right.”
The fact that Swizz finished high school while living in Atlanta ultimately shaped the sound of his production. Where X came into the game bodying gritty East Coast samples, Swizz brought an array of different instruments into the mix; it wasn’t uncommon to hear horns, strings, and off-kilter synthesizers pulled from the young producer’s toolkit. Despite the stylistic difference, X took to Swizzy’s dynamic sound and brought new melodies into the mix, navigating percussive arrangements unseen on It’s Dark. “Ain’t No Way” encapsulates the signature Swizz Beatz’ late nineties sound, as X lays formidable bars over a strangely futuristic bounce. Visions are given room to evolve in cinematic fashion, like on the ghostly Marilyn Manson horror epic “The Omen.” New York posse cut “Blackout” captured lightning in a bottle, a frantic anthem that would foreshadow a soon-to-be dominant Ruff Ryders movement. It’s that Double R presence that makes Flesh Of My Flesh so distinct, with Jadakiss, Styles, Sheek, and Drag-On all contributing standout verses to the cause.
Suffice it to say, DMX succeeded in accomplishing Cohen’s challenge. Not only did he secure his additional million, but he also made history as one of the first artists to secure two number one albums in a single calendar year; 2Pac had done the same in 1996, though his second release was done posthumously. If that wasn’t impressive enough, X came through with two classics at that, projects strong enough to keep him in steady Top 10 contention. When it dropped on December 22nd, 1998, Flesh Of My Flesh went on to move 670,000 units. Not streams -- six hundred and seventy thousand people mobilizing to buy a copy of the album. From the chilling album cover to the climactic duel between God and Satan that is “Ready To Meet Him,” DMX proved himself to be one of --if not the--most electrifying voices in the music industry. While it might have been the result of a glorified wager, the impact Flesh Of My Flesh continues to have twenty-one years later makes the genius of DMX all the more impressive.