I can buy that the title of Undisputed, DMX’s long-delayed seventh studio LP, promotes an aspirational sentiment, but even in a genre largely dependent on outsized self-promotion, the assertion that DMX’s supremacy in the hip-hop world is “undisputed” strains credulity.
It’s been six years since we last heard from the Dogman, and in that time, DMX has had a rough time of it.
There have been arrests, threats of retirement, arrests, four-wheeler accidents, and a couple more arrests. The momentum DMX had back in 1998 (when his supremacy in the rap game really was undisputed) has dissipated, either squandered by the Dogman’s own avarice or stymied by an industry content to move on to bigger and better things.
Unlike Jay-Z, whose comeback album featured plenty in the way of artistic self-justification, DMX can’t make a good case for the necessity of Undisputed’s existence. In his desultory post-2006 pursuits, DMX has had a difficult time glomming onto one particular objective, and that sense of groping dissatisfaction bleeds Undisputed of its would-be triumphs.
His gruff bark makes a return visit on the album, but time has softened his vocal cords, and with them his aggressive aesthetic.
“I Get Scared,” which arrives midway through the LP, serves both as a touching admission on DMX’s part, and a depressing example of his dissipated lyrical powers. On “Slippin’ Again” and “Have You Eva,” the man formerly hailed as the most aggressive MC on the planet sounds confused, defensive and a little bit tired. These tracks would play as heart-breaking, late-career confessions if it weren’t for the violence with which they run contrary to the grain of DMX’s established style, a style he is less than content to abandon on Undisputed.
There’s something profoundly sad (not to mention cognitively dissonant) about a man yelling, “Please help me, which way do I go? / Life’s a book, which page do I show?”, then switching within the space of two tracks to a somewhat spineless howl of, “I’m back up in your face, I’m back up in your grill / I’m back in the act with a license to kill.”
Introspection is just not something that DMX does a particularly good job of portraying lyrically, and Undisputed’s strongest tracks are those in which he tries to recreate the gangster anthems that defined his career’s peak.
The thumping aggression of “I Don’t Dance” and “Get Your Money Up” make good use of DMX’s signature bark, but their context ensures that listeners are impressed with the fundamental limitations of his range.
Were DMX a more protean character, his career in general might have gone a bit smoother. At least when he reached the point where he began looking back on his youth with regret, he might have mined that material for a couple of brilliant albums. As it stands, Undisputed serves only to make DMX’s late-career tragedy that much more tragic.