It's among the longest standing and most cherished clichés in the hip-hop world: Litter the musical landscape with corpses, violate "bitches," insult gays, then dedicate your album to God, as if to sanctify the relentless blood on the tracks. Earl Simmons, the ferocious rapper better known as DMX, is not above such gestures. In the dedication to his 1998 debut, "It's Dark and Hell Is Hot," DMX writes, "I am thanking my top dog, my Lord first."

That might sound like the basest hypocrisy, but in the case of DMX, there's something more complex at work. As his album's title indicates, the 29-year-old rapper has a fearsome vision, one that sees the desperate, violent, crime-ridden world of the inner city as a kind of moral inferno, a place where choices are few and false moves fatal. "You musta forgot, dog/This is the city life," he explains to a rich mark he's threatening to rob,
"Ain't a f---in' thing sweet
And ain't nothin' fair
Just another n---a dead
Don't a motherf---er care."
On "What's My Name," he screams in brilliant understatement, "I'm not a nice person."

That the quality of niceness would even come up, highlights the intriguing quality of DMX. One of the central assumptions of his three albums ("Flesh of My Flesh Blood of My Blood" and "...And Then There Was X" are the other two) is that in a better world, he would be a "nice" or, more to the point, good person.

The corollary to that is: It's not, so he isn't.

Obviously, from a strict spiritual perspective, his position is indefensible. Isn't the entire point of virtue to be a corrective for conditions that reward vice? But from a social point of view, it's what's real, a brutally unsentimental version of the old bumper-sticker message: "You Want Peace? Work for Justice."

For many rappers, peace is nonexistent, and the justice is the harsh code of the street. But DMX's emphasis on loyalty differentiates him from the majority of gangsta rappers. Valuing this virtue no less than Tony Soprano or Dante Alghieri, DMX views betrayal of trust as the gravest sin.

More tellingly, his songs are completely free of the designer-label materialism that infects so much of hip-hop. He repeatedly denounces greed and the exhibitionism of the rich; his own desire for wealth is a pragmatic wish for insulation against the world's shocks. Beyond that, money doesn't interest him--as he says on one track, "I do not worship money."DMX has released all three of his albums within a year and a half; the most recent, still in the Top 20, came out in December of last year. All of them entered the charts at No. 1 and have sold well into the millions. Their appeal is their intense sense of drama and consequence. His fierce bark, his hoarseness and clipped cadences echo the rage of the rap classic, "The Message": "Don't push me, 'cause I'm close to the edge."

Hypnotic beats and keyboard lines suffuse the atmosphere with great foreboding. The effect is eerie thug paranoia, heightened by bushels of weed.

But, unique among rappers, DMX's drama is more internal than external. His lyrics--even when he's describing the most heinous acts--are filled with biblical and other religious references. In their agonized struggle, his characters recall figures from the films of Abel Ferrara, Paul Schrader, and Martin Scorsese. "I don't get much sleep/My soul's tormented," the hit man in "The Professional" states, "I know I'm doing wrong/And everyday I beg the Lord to forgive me."

DMX's rap is a continual conversation with God. Each album includes a track that is less a rap than an apologia--part prayer, part confession, part statement of philosophical purpose. "What good is it for a man to gain the world/Yet lose his own soul in the process?" he asks at the start of "Angel," a song that combines moody hip-hop beats with gospel-derived vocals by Regina Bell. "Deep inside I got something that's working against/Everything I know is right/What I know makes sense," DMX declares to the Lord in a kind of street definition of original sin. The Lord answers: "What you got goin' on inside you is a war/Between good and evil . . . I'm here, but I can only help you if you want me to help/What do you want for yourself?" That's a hard question for anyone to answer.

Whoever goes to DMX's music looking for a theological disquisition is obviously going to be disappointed--if not outraged. DMX is not only the most popular rapper around right now, he's the most credible, largely because of how coldly hardcore his vision is.

He was just recently released from jail, and weapon and drug charges trail after him, as much a routine part of his life as packed arenas and platinum sales.

But there can be no denying that DMX's tales of the streets take place in a world shimmering with metaphysical significance. He accepts the inexorable consequences, without claiming to understand the mystery that governs events "from the hood to the wood." "The game is a lot bigger/Than you think you know," DMX says, "And if you think you know/Then I don't think you know."

The awareness of that bigger game lifts DMX's music to a higher level, and that may well be part of the reason he speaks so compellingly to so many people.

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