Thursday, 13 September 2012

DMX - Undisputed

Few musicians have had a career trajectory quite as extreme as DMX. A string of number one albums in the late 90's (including 2 in the same year) put X at the forefront of mainstream rap, a success story that stretched into the new millennium as the gruff New Yorker amassed over 20 million in sales. In addition to musical success, the rapper also branched out into acting, taking on a variety of well received roles.
Post 2003, however, everything went wrong. Frequent, well publicised legal woes were briefly staved off with 2006's disappointing Year of the Dog... Again, but the familiar personal problems seemingly overwhelmed him as the decade came to a close. Now, fresh from his latest stint in prison, DMX is at risk of being forgotten by the rap world. 6 years after his last album, Undisputed marks a return for one of hip hop's most perplexing, yet enduring figures.

Opener 'What They Don't Know' is an attempt to pick up where Year of the Dog... left off. Enlisting frequent collaborator Swizz Beatz finds the rapper in familiar guttural territory, flanked by the bombastic production Swizz is famed for. Fully embracing the 'if it 'aint broke' mantra, the track comes off sounding like a discarded effort from a previous LP. In trying to recapture the spirit of previous club bangers, however, 'I Don't Dance' is a slightly more successful effort. Obviously gunning for radio play, a surprisingly euro-pop looping beat is used to catch the ear of listeners. While some might find the syrupy backing a little offensive for an MC noted for his violent subject matter, X still manages to infuse the track with his signature menace with some darkly humorous wordplay:
"Y'all niggas whisper X is a crackhead../ Aight then, fuck it, Imma just crack heads!"
MGK is a smart guest addition, matching the veteran in the cartoonish intensity of the club friendly song.

Indeed, Undisputed is most successful when DMX brings his brash, rough edged schizophrenic flow to the fore. 'I'm Back' has infectious horns bouncing across a soulful backing, allowing X to utilise his harsh, barking delivery to its full potential. It is somewhat baffling that the track isn't used to introduce the album, both suiting the overarching theme of the LP and at the same time arguably the strongest offering to be found in the collection. In a similar vein, 'Get Your Money Up' and 'Already' effectively showcase the talents of a man who has been away from the spotlight for too long.

Trash talking and violence are not the only topics on X's mind, however. A large part of the album is devoted to introspection and recrimination over his criminal past. 'I Get Scared' finds the MC exploring a softer side to his public persona, even singing over the chorus while being assisted capably by Adreena Mills. 'Slippin Again' borrows a title from one of his classic tracks, and again features more singing. While this marks a surprising departure from what fans may be used to, the transition is a triumph, especially when combined with thoughtful, attention grabbing lines:
"You think having money is the answer?/ Money aint nothing but another form of cancer."

There are, however, a number of weak moments spread out through the album. The deeply misogynistic 'Sucka For Love' is unpleasant hip hop buffoonery of the highest order, the title misleading in the extreme as X describes his disgust for women who sleep around (presumably it is still perfectly alright for him to do the same). Some tracks, while much less offensive, struggle with either weak production or poor lyrics. While a loose, halting style has always been a hallmark of his flow, at times on the album the rapper seems to have lost confidence in his own ability. Certain songs simply become tiresome, 'Cold World', 'Have You Eva' and 'I Got Your Back' being particularly guilty of this trait.
As described earlier, some simple editing may have made Undisputed a more cohesive listen. Soulful, heartfelt tracks are followed by rambunctious, braggadocios efforts, the album then immediately switching back to another softer side of the rapper. Grouping the different tones together could have made an already confusing character that little bit easier to understand.

Track by Track:

1. Look Without Seein’ (Intro)
2. What They Don't Know (6/10)
3. Cold World (6/10)
4. I Don't Dance (7/10)
5. Sucka For Love (3/10)
6. I Get Scared (7/10)
7. Slippin' Again (8/10)
8. Prayer (Skit) 
9. I'm Back (8/10)
10. Have You Eva (6/10)
11. Get Your Money Up (7/10)
12. Head Up (6/10)
13. Frankenstein (6/10)
14. Ya'll Don't Really Know (7/10)
15. I Got Your Back (5/10)
16. No Love (6/10)
17. Already (7/10)

The Verdict:

The majority of Undisputed showcases an artist that is past his captivating best. While it is to be applauded that a seemingly more mature and focused rapper has returned to the mic, the album struggles at times to remind listeners why the world once fell in love with the Yonkers born MC. A welcome return, then, but one that needs to be built upon if DMX is to retain his spot at the hip hop table.


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