DMX performs during the BET Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta on Oct. 1, 2011. The family of rapper DMX says he has died at age 50 after a career in which he delivered iconic hip-hop songs such as Ruff Ryder.
( AP Photo/David Goldman, File
Tanzina Vega: Earlier this month, hip-hop fans mourned the death of rapper DMX who died at just 50 years old. Throughout his chart-topping career, DMX was often forthcoming about the challenges in his personal life. He grew up in the housing projects in Yonkers and was physically abused by multiple adults in his life. DMX often displayed his vulnerability in the lyrics of his songs, and he also gave back frequently to his community through charity work with children.
Today, that tenderness that was a part of DMX's personality is something many rappers are even more openly exploring. Changing notions of masculinity have allowed musicians to be more vulnerable in both their work and stylistic choices. That includes Kid Cudi who wore a floral dress on Saturday Night Live this month in tribute to Kurt Cobain and Lil Nas X, who recently released a provocative music video for his song Montero. Joining me now to talk about this evolution is Craig Jenkins, music critic for New YorkMagazine. Craig, thanks for being with me.
Craig: Hi, and thanks for having me.
Tanzina: Some people only know DMX through his big hits, but how did he present himself in some of the songs that were his deeper cuts? Tell us about that level of vulnerability.
Craig: Between the hit records, he was a very haunted man, and you could hear it just in the delivery and the stories that he would tell. He would talk about feeling like he was in a tug of war between forces of good and evil. That really, is the story of his entire life, from growing up where he grew up, and falling into crime because teachers and family couldn't really understand him or figure out how to educate him in a way that was advantageous, to run-ins with the law when he got famous. He just always was in the middle of good and evil.
Tanzina: DMX was of that generation of hip-hop artists in the '90s and the hyper-masculinity that surrounded that era of hip-hop is often something that's talked about, but how would you describe the version of masculinity DMX embodied?
Craig: He was tough because he had to be. You grew up somewhere where there was the possibility that you would have to fight, that you would get robbed and so you have to put up a certain veneer just to stay safe. There was also the element of criminality that he was involved in that necessitated a certain image. To be a stickup kid, who doesn't wear a mask, this guy was robbing people face to face for a while to make ends meet, you have to portray a certain image. The pathway from that kind of thing into hip-hop is well tried.
History in the street translates well to the records and so that made hip-hop become a place where those stories get told, and not necessarily in a way that moralizes them, that gets into the why that stuff happens and why it exists.
Tanzina: Right, it's not just done for the sake of making albums, it was actually really happening. I am of that era, so I can attest to that reality, particularly in New York. We also talked a little bit about Lil Nas X and Kid Cudi in the introduction about how they're pushing the boundaries of masculinity in many ways, turning it on its head in their music. How would you describe how masculinity comes across in their work?
Craig: It's different, there's a bigger range of expression. There's not necessarily this mandate that you have to portray a certain image in order to come across as masculine. The walls are eroding, and it's allowing people to be more expressive incrementally over time. With Lil Nas X, that single is really the culmination of maybe 20 years of advances, slow advances, but it's nice to see that we're at a place where someone can make a video like Montero and have it resonate with people and not make everyone too crazy.
Tanzina: Of course, even prior to Lil Nas X and Kid Cudi and DMX, Prince was someone who also pushed boundaries in a lot of ways. Did he help lay the foundation for what we're seeing Kid Cudi and Lil Nas X and others being able to do?
Craig: In a lot of ways, yes. Prince definitely opened doors for male expression, but, in another sense, he's a paragon of a very specific time in the '80s, where everyone believed that everyone else was straight. His religiosity also was a shield in that respect. Yes, things definitely--
Tanzina: He wasn't competing in hip-hop, he was really more of his own thing in a rock icon in many ways, right?
Craig: His own genre that you could see inside rock that often fit inside of it, yes. It was a different field and there were different expectations.
Tanzina: You wrote a piece in 2017 saying rap is less homophobic than ever, but it still has a long way to go. Does it still have a way to go?
Craig: It does. It's great that we can have a gay rapper have the number one song in America, but there's also still very much a climate of homophobia and a climate of transphobia that is, as rights battles on those fields intensified really flaring up in hip-hop. You're getting a lot of rappers making a lot of statements that seem rooted in the old ways of thinking.
Tanzina: In their work, or just in comments to the media and things like that?
Craig: Outside of the work, but occasionally in the work as well. I was just having this conversation with a friend. There are certain words that don't get used with the frequency that they would say 20 years ago, even in a DMX record, but attitudes that informed the language aren't necessarily fully cleared up just yet.
Tanzina: What do you think needs to improve in hip-hop so that we can continue along this evolution that we're seeing from DMX to his vulnerability to now seeing what Lil Nas X and Kid Cudi are doing?
Craig: I think that we just need to see more people express more ways of living in order to get more acceptance and understanding of those ways of living, in short.
Tanzina: Do you think the fan base has anything to do with that? The fan base and what the fans are looking for, is that driving some of this, or is this really artist-driven and the fans are just more receptive to it?
Craig: Everything is connected. It's the country that everyone lives in and it's the attitudes that grow in that climate and it's the industry and they're all feeding into each other and it's a circuit that I feel like could easily be broken.
Tanzina: We'll be paying attention for the next big thing. Craig Jenkins is music critic for New York Magazine. Craig, thanks so much.
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