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Anybody who's heard DMX's new songs says they're great. The fact that most of them were recorded on the first take, right after Simmons heard the beats for the first time, speaks to his talent.
"He is truly one of the world's greatest rappers and a genuine poet," says Don Salter, owner of Saltmine Studios in Mesa, where DMX recorded the Walk with Me Now and Fly with Me Later albums. "He has a spontaneous ability to rhyme, reason, and record masterpieces on the fly."
Many of the new songs reflect on DMX's chaotic life in Arizona. Perhaps most haunting is the track "Soldier," which begins with a collage of sound bites from news stations about his various arrests, laid down over a melancholy piano hook and marching beat. In the first verse, DMX raps: "Ran through the streets, made it out of NY / Come to AZ, cowboys trying to end my / Man, you can't be serious homie / Besides mountains, ain't a fucking thing you can show me."
Whenever DMX has been arrested in Phoenix, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been right there, helping to make it a media production, saying the rapper "never learns his lesson" and vowing to treat him the same as any other prisoner — which includes making him wear pink underwear like the rest of the MCSO inmates. A couple of years ago, DMX told TMZ, "For the record, fuck Sheriff Joe."
But if DMX is rapping about Arpaio in songs like "Soldier," he hasn't come right out and said it. Asked if he feels he's been treated unfairly by Arpaio, Simmons now says, "I'd say I've been given a lot of unfair treatment. But I'm not gonna let that dictate what I do."
Other new DMX songs address his relationship with God. Fly with Me Later consists entirely of gospel hip-hop songs. In one of them, "Have You Eva," he raps over R&B music and soulful female backing vocals about common struggles we all face. But the lyrics apply to Simmons as much as anyone: "Have you ever got up smiling and laid down crying?" he asks, before rapping, "Have you ever seen something that you wanted so bad? / Then you got it and wished it was something you never had? Don't beat yourself up like 'Where did I go wrong?' / Just get back up, pray on it, and go on."
Many of the tracks feature beats contributed by DMX's old friend, Swizz Beatz, who sold his first beat to DMX when he was 17. He's gone on to produce music for Beyoncé, T.I., and Busta Rhymes and now runs his own label, Full Surface Records.
When Beatz initially sent the music, DMX had been out of jail for a few months and was recording in the studio almost every day. "He was very diligent at being clean and maintaining his sobriety. He was very clear-headed," Salter says. "I think he really did buy into the idea that he was going to get his life together and get his career back."
But by 2010, Simmons' career had fallen apart. He left the Def Jam label in 2003. For a long time, Simmons claimed he left because the new president of Def Jam, Jay-Z, wasn't promoting his albums. Others in Simmons' camp, like his manager, Nakia Walker, say Jay-Z let Simmons go so he could deal with his problems and was nice enough not to demand the $2 million Simmons would have owed for not fulfilling his contract. (Jay-Z's publicist at Universal Music did not respond to interview requests for this story. An interview request through his book publisher was declined.)
Simmons signed to Bodog Music in 2007 to record and release Walk with Me Now and Fly with Me Later. After Bodog Music shut down in 2008, International Arts Management and Her Royal Majesty's Records retained the rights to the new recordings. According to IAM CEO Peter Karroll, the plan is still to get the records released.
"I've always felt the guy was a creative genius and deserved another shot," Karroll says. "This is a big record. I think this album has the potential to take him back to number one."
But Karroll says that every time they got ready to release the albums, Simmons would get arrested again. They don't want to release the records while he's in jail. Karroll also says once the albums are released, there must be a budget for videos, promotion, touring, etc. "We still have the album, and we still believe in it," he says. "We're looking for someone who's going to invest something tangible. We're looking for equity partners or even a new label deal."
Karroll says he's received several offers, but negotiations collapse every time DMX lands in jail. Ideally, Simmons could buy his licenses back, but he doesn't have the money. Somebody who's sold millions of albums could conceivably live off publishing royalties, but Simmons admits he never looked at his finances during the first 10 years of his career. Most of the time, he was busy dealing with jails and courts.
When Nakia Walker came on board and looked at Simmons' business last year, she says she discovered someone has been stealing his publishing royalties for more than a decade.