DMX was a larger-than-life presence, but he contained multitudes as well. The legendary rapper, who died on April 9 at the age of 50 after suffering a heart attack one week prior, became the biggest thing in hip-hop during the late 1990s because of his singular, sweeping appeal. He was intense, unfiltered, and charming in his own unique way—which made him a supernova almost instantly upon his breakthrough in 1998. DMX’s willingness to unleash his range of emotions made him as phenomenal as he was antithetical. In just over an hour, his debut It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot showcased the full spectrum of who he was. He’s best known for the kinetic aggression of “Get At Me Dog” and “Ruff Ryders Anthem,” the harrowing duality of “Stop Being Greedy,” and even the ominous spirituality of “Let Me Fly,” but the gem which encapsulates his versatility is “How’s It Goin’ Down.”
The song, produced by PK, chronicles an illicit affair between DMX and a woman who he loves deeply despite acknowledging that they have no future together. It’s an impossible situation and both parties know they’re wrong, but their chemistry and the comfort they feel in each other’s presence allows them to escape reality. It’s the white-hot rush of desire, a temporary bliss. Through the years, “How’s It Goin’ Down” has become one of DMX’s signature songs as well as one of hip-hop’s greatest love songs because it’s beautiful, pensive, and painfully realistic. This is no fairy tale romance; there’s no happily-ever-after and the reverberating message is that love, alone, simply isn’t enough.
“How’s It Goin’ Down” is unlike anything else on It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, and the version that was released as the album’s final single swaps a skit featuring an abrasive phone conversation driven by accusations of infidelity for a stripped-down intro that bleeds into the chorus. This version, which is superior, gives singer Faith Evans’s vocals room to breathe as DMX asks, in his very direct way, what the deal is: “What type of games are being played? How’s it goin’ down?/If it’s on ‘til it’s gone, then I gots to know now/Is you with me or what?”
As much as DMX was thought of as a live wire who rapped at different volumes, in different cadences, and from different perspectives, “How’s It Goin’ Down” is conversational and showcased his aptitude as a storyteller. It’s a three-act tale in which DMX recalls the beginning, middle, and end of the relationship. Throughout, he alternates between addressing the listener and the woman who’s caught his heart. “I’m politickin’ with this chicken wonderin’ if I’ma creep her/Little hoodrat bitch from 25th named Tenika/Comin’ through like I do, you know, gettin’ my bark on/Knew she was a thug ‘cause when I met her she had a scarf on'' sets the scene with rich details. “Talkin’ to shorty made me wanna do somethin’ nice/Lookin’ at that ass made me wanna do somethin’ tonight” adds color and levity through dashes of DMX’s personality, which is accentuated by his staccato delivery. As they settle into the situation, DMX attempts to show his virtue (“I’m gettin’ at shorty like, ‘What you need? What you want?”) not long before threatening her boyfriend’s life after learning that he attacked someone who he mistook for DMX following his discovery of her infidelity. And therein lies the unsustainability that prevents the relationship from being more than a dalliance existing on borrowed time.
There’s no naïveté in DMX’s words, but declarations like “Told you from the door, it ain’t all about a nut” reiterate his intentions. As much as he wants it to work, he can’t dodge the sobering reality that their relationship can’t blossom or continue: “But she belonged to cuz, couldn’t belong to me/She had two kids by this n-gga, it was wrong for me.” X’s promise that they’ll always be best friends feels like a pacifying lie to make the pain easier to stomach. Meanwhile, Evans’s vocal runs cut deep; every “All I want is you” underscores the yearning for something that’s intangible. As the beat slowly fades, what started out mellow becomes a melancholic blend of snares, kick, and heartbreak: a sublime soundtrack to doomed love. It’s a perfectly executed rendering of an imperfect scenario.
The music video, directed by Hype Williams, evolved what he and DMX established with the subterranean video for “Get at Me Dog'' and previewed what they’d unveil that fall with Belly. It elevated the song by giving its narrative arc the lush visuals that made Williams so in-demand and influential at his peak. The most gutting shot finds DMX posted against a black SUV, briefly bowing his head in defeat as he watches the woman he can never be with embrace the father of her children. Working in tandem with the song, it highlights the vulnerability that made DMX so extraordinary. He was hard as fucking nails, but never hid behind the impervious rap superstar facade because he was too authentic and too beautifully human. “How’s It Goin’ Down” recalls a situation that did not work out in his favor, but gave him perspective even though it clearly hurt him.
DMX detailed his first heartbreak during a 2019 interview with GQ: At 17, he fell head-over-heels for a girl from Connecticut before getting locked up over a robbery warrant. When he tracked her down after his release four months later, she gave him the runaround before belittling him. “That shit hurt my feelings,” he said. “Because I really liked her, and I know she really liked me before I got locked up.” The seeds for “How’s It Goin’ Down” lie in that instance of teenage heartbreak. “How’s It Goin’ Down” is a classic that revealed DMX’s capacity to rap about love, laying the foundation for other glimpses like Mary Blige’s “Sincerity” and “Back in One Piece,” his duet with Aaliyah. But most importantly, “How’s It Goin’ Down” is exemplary of what made DMX so dynamic: it’s brazenly honest, layered, and brilliant—just like the man himself.
Originally Appeared on GQ