Musical Talmud: DMX, Party Up

Man does not rap by lyrics alone.

Welcome to another installment of Musical Talmud, where we search for the hidden nooks and crannies of pop music lyrics for delicious pockets of melted butter.  (And by melted butter I mean “hermeneutic significance.”  Thinking of nooks and crannies just got me hungry for an English Muffin, and my mind wandered.)

I don’t really want to talk about DMX on this website. Our mission statement involves giving popular culture a level of attention that “it probably doesn’t deserve,” and while this particular post might be overcompensating a little, I think that DMX actually gets way less serious attention than he ought to.  (Although I am proud to note that what serious attention he does receive tends to stem from these very pages.)  I will grant that DMX doesn’t have the same kind of millennial trans-hipsterish caché as a Kanye West or a Will.I.Am.  I will also grant that he’s not always what you’d call a lyrical technician. No one will be buying the DMX poetry book the way that they’ve been buying the Tupac and Jewel poetry books. But man does not rap by lyrics alone.

You have to remember the element that rap fans refer to as “flow” — a nebulous olla podrida of rhythm, pacing, alliteration, enunciation, rhyme scheme, pitch, assonance, volume, and grain-of-the-voice that distinguishes the art of rap from merely talking about cocaine into a microphone.  Flow is hard to describe and borderline impossible to analyze systematically, but it’s relatively easy to isolate the experience for yourself:  that which you listen to when you listen to MC Solaar, assuming you don’t speak French, is flow.  It is precisely that aspect of the rap performance which is not contained in the meaning of the words.  (Although claiming that flow can be completely divorced from the meaning of the words is not really accurate either, because words can have semantic stresses which may or may not align with any other kind of poetic or musical stress.)

Anyway, whatever flow might really be, DMX is one of the all-time champions.  Listen to the way that he rhymes “find yourself” with “someone else.”  An analysis less sensitive to flow might claim that, hey, these don’t rhyme.  And that would be correct, as far as it goes, but it wouldn’t describe the actual experience of listening to DMX, in which we find that the phrases somehow do rhyme (or rather, his flow deforms them into a symmetrical binary that is isomorphic to the symmetrical binary of an AA rhyme scheme).  To give some small sense of this in writing, I’ve tried to break up the lyrics below not according to grammar but according to the way they are actually strung across the time-structure provided by Swizz Swizz Beats’s beat, such that the word that falls on the musical downbeat will always fall at the beginning of the line, regardless of how awkward this is grammatically.

But like I said, this is all deviating from our mission statement, and in any case, the Musical Talmud series is really about the hidden meanings of pop lyrics.  Man doesn’t rap by flow alone, either.

(Note that, as this is a family friendly website, the vocabulary in the following lyrics has been severely bowdlerized.)

…up in here, up in– If I gots to
bring it to you cowards then it’s gonna be quick, all your
mens up in the jail before, [fellated] my [genitals], and all them
other cats you run with, get done with, dumb quick.
How the [heck] you gonna cross the dog with some [insignificant stuff]?

DMX can be a vivid storyteller when he wants to be, and this opening quatrain sets up a dramatic situation in which the narrator (presumably DMX), is confronting a group of rather rough-and-tumble gentlemen (lest we forget, they have “mens up in the jail”).  This is all pretty standard stuff, although nicely phrased and wonderfully delivered.  The important part, from our purposes, is that DMX did not start the fight.  His opening line, “I gots to bring it to you,” [my emphasis] suggests that he has been provoked, but that he cannot let the insult go and now has no option but to escalate the situation.  This is reinforced by his reference to himself as “the dog,” which in addition to continuing the entertaining if ideologically suspect series of categorical oppositions from the verse’s second line (fellator:fellated::feminine:masculine::cats:dog), also activates anglophone culture’s received notions of doghood, viz. the guard dog, the watchdog, and most particularly the sleeping dog that one had best let lie.

Aight, there go the gun click, nine one one [stuff]
All over some dumb [stuff], ain’t that some [stuff]
Y’all [people] remind me of a strip club, cause everytime you
come around it’s like (what?) I just gotta get my [genitals fellated].

The situation continues to spiral out of control.  But we should take a little detour here to unpack the peculiar relationship that DMX has with homosexuality.  Most rappers, especially “gangster” rappers, do not devote this much time to boasting about having oral intercourse with other men.  In fact this is actually a little less strange than it seems:  many homophobic cultures make a tacit exception for what is sometimes called “situational” homosexuality: settings (such as jail, the navy, or being stranded on a deserted asteroid with your science officer as he enters the pon farr mating frenzy) in which homosexual activity is compelled by a lack of “suitable” sexual targets.  This is very much the kind of situation that DMX is describing.  After all, it’s not like he’s seeking these men out for sexual encounters.  They just come around, and, almost by surprise, “it’s like, what?” How could this possibly have happened? Well, I guess I’ve just got to… Go on, knock yourself out.

Also note that, although this is not the way we tend to think about it in America these days, many cultural accounts of male homosexuality distinguish between an active/masculine/penetrating behavior and passive/feminine/penetratèd behavior, with only the second kind of behavior being stigmatized.  (This was pretty much the situation in Ancient Greece, for instance.)  The DMX-narrator is kind of kicking over the apple cart, because he’s a penetrator who does not act.  And this fits quite nicely with the dog image from the beginning of the verse:  macho, but strangely passive.

And I don’t know who the [heck] you think you talkin to
but I’m not him, aight slim? So watch what you do
Or you gon’ find yourself, buried next to someone
else, and we all thought you loved yourself. But that
couldn’t have been the issue, or maybe they just sayin that,
now cause they miss you. [Dang] a [person] tried to diss you! That’s
why you layin on your back, lookin at the roof of the church.
Preacher tellin the truth and it hurts.

Now here’s where it gets interesting.  Forget about the sexual identity stuff from the last paragraph.  Forget about all of that.  Just think about the narrative again:  DMX is out somewhere, presumably in a club outside of which all his rough ri-derrrrs can meet him, and some people start talking smack.  DMX is not one to walk away from an insult (I don’t know who the [heck] you think you talkin to, but it’s not him, aight?), so the confrontation turns physical.  Guns are drawn (there go the gun click).  Someone calls the cops (nine one one [stuff]).  The situation is increasingly tense.  And then the DMX-narrator issues an ultimatum.  Back down now, or you will end up dead, and what’s more I’ll get my contact at the corrupt mortuary to stuff your corpse into an occupied coffin (“you gon’ find yourself, buried next to someone else”) so that your body is never found.  This much has been delivered essentially as dialogue. While a number of alternative settings and contexts have been placed onscreen, as it were (the jail, the strip club, the coffin), we can imagine that the scene in the narrative has not changed.  Everything that we’ve heard so far has been uttered by the DMX-narrator in the course of his nightclub confrontation.  But the next line, “and we all thought that you loved yourself,” indicates a complete change of perspective.

We are yanked away from the nightclub.  Now we are in a church, in the middle of a funeral.  This is most clearly indicated by the change in verb tense.  Almost everything up until this point has been in the present, but now we all thought, you loved, that couldn’t have been. The speaker, too has changed. For the first time, a voice other than DMX’s enters the discourse, as we are informed retroactively that “We all thought that you loved yourself” is what “they [are] just saying… now.”  (That “now” is another crucial indicator that we have jumped forward in time, btw.)  And when DMX takes over the narrative voice again, he is not the same guy: where before we had DMX the Dog, we now have DMX the “Preacher,” activating another rich set of cultural associations (particularly within African-American culture), of the Man of God as master of rhetoric and speaker of painful truths.

Why this change of persona?  Because DMX the Dog, the narrator of the first three quarters or so of the verse, is the guy that got killed in the gunfight. There are three proofs for this:

•  The confrontation at the beginning of the song is that of one (the Dog) against many (you cowards).  But only one corpse appears at the funeral.

•  If DMX the Dog had won the fight, there would not be any funeral:  the cowards would wind up “buried next to someone else” in the corrupt funeral home scenario mentioned above. (This is further supported by the phrase “you gon’ find yourself,” which implies the opposite term:  you had better damn well find yourself, because certainly no one else ever will.)

•  Finally, and most emphatically, remember the preacher’s parting words!  “[Dang,] a [person] tried to diss you, that’s why you laying on your back, etc. etc.” [emphasis mine].  Now think back to the scenario:  someone (the [person]), started talking trash.  Someone else (the corpse), could not let it go.  And because he could not walk away from an insult, because it was so important that he maintain his reputation, that second person went and got his fool self killed.  In the narrative constructed by the first verse of the song, DMX the Dog is quite clearly playing the role of the corpse.

Think I’m taking this too far?  Think I’m not taking it too far enough?  Got some thoughts on the marxist symbolism of the second or third verse?  Sound off in the comments!

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