The workmanlike charms of Devin the Dude.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
March 27 2007 3:30 PM

Devin the Dude

The joys of rapping for a living.

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Waitin' To Inhale is the most anticipated album of Devin's career, probably because hip-hop idolatry circa 2007 makes the blue-collar Devin seem more relatable than ever. Friends of Kanye like Rhymefest and Consequence have attempted similar salaryman-as-rapper stances, but a resignation curls through their music. In contrast, Devin seems Zen-like in his own skin. "What a Job" is one of the year's most stirring singles, an anthem about how great it is to rap for a living. Neither the money nor the fame truly suffices: "I love what I do," Devin coos, saluting the owllike engineers who undercharge him for studio time and romanticizing the all-nighters spent there, revising tracks into perfection. It's refreshing to hear Devin's childlike fascination with rap intact, and it infects guests Snoop Dogg and André 3000. "We work nights, we some vampires/ Ni—as gather 'round the beat like campfires," Andre describes. What follows is the kind of earnest, spit-shined verse that embodies the pride Devin describes. André gently rails against downloaders and then shows the spoils of respecting his craft by penning a tender verse about a young, Outkast-obsessed couple he met outside the studio.

Devin remains a wonderful storyteller, timing his delivery like a comedian. On "She Useta," he awkwardly intersects with one of his schoolboy crushes, whose once-luscious frame has ballooned from disuse—"from elegant to elephant," he laughs before praising her still-cute face. He hovers above the phone, ready to share the discovery with his friends for a cheap laugh. Instead, he dials the girl, the song dissolving into a play-by-play of the piles of food she cooked for him. "Almighty Dollar" is striking in its modesty, as Devin figures out a way to stretch $17. He offers a bum a buck: The bum scoffs, so Devin rescinds and follows the scent toward Frenchy's Chicken, fingering the change in his pocket along the way.

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Devin's model for pleasure is simple. But while jokes, junk food, and pot might very well be victimless crimes, the half of Waitin' fixated with chasing women wades in murkier waters. It's easy to be lulled by the way his voice mingles with the album's airy, slow-motion funk. But the title's punning of Terry McMillan's women-scorned novel can feel uncomfortably cruel, especially on the post-breakup ballad "Just Because" and the disturbingly Lolita-like "Cutcha Up." While Devin never sounds particularly threatening or predatory—Eminem, for example, has sounded far scarier—the songs depart from the just-plain-weird (and slightly more palatable) sexism of the archly exotic "Hope I Don't Get Sick A Dis" or "Broccoli and Cheese," featuring absurdist boasts about his hygienic nether regions.

Waiting around for so long has made the audacious Devin into a kind of folk hero. But from the Odd Squad to his new album, it's startling how little Devin has changed. Credit the billows of lethargy-inducing smoke that have passed through his body, and credit a patient, old-fashioned work ethic that takes pride in the finished product. Devin's innocence has preserved him, and it occasionally makes him seem like rap's long-forgotten conscience, fully aware of why he got into all this in the first place, and wondering when it became terribly gauche to hold down a job.

Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College and is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.