Devin the Dude
The joys of rapping for a living.
Nobody wants to merely rap—the true ransom awaits he who becomes "an entity." So suggested John Brown, the runner-up on VH1's recent, America's Next Top _____-styled satire, the brilliant (White) Rapper Show. For Brown, rapping was but one of many pursuits. His broader ambition envisioned a career as an incredibly wealthy multiplatform entertainer. It was a chillingly pragmatic but essentially correct distillation of what it means to be a pop star in 2007: Kids may not be buying CDs, but there are plenty of other things to sell them.
Thus rap has become a means to an end, and between pyramid-scaling CEOs (Jay-Z and 50 Cent) and rappers proudly uninterested in rapping (Mims, syllogist of the year, and Young Jeezy), a new kind of white-collar swagger has emerged—rhyming is a cinch compared to diversifying one's hustle. In the corner of rap's boardroom leans a Rip Van Winkle-like figure, Houston's drowsy-eyed oddball Devin the Dude. He grins broadly, for two primary reasons. He just smoked about 11 pounds of weed, and his ignorance to all of the above has resulted in one of the year's best rap records.
The just-released Waitin' To Inhale is Devin's fourth solo album. Virtually every song Devin has appeared on has involved weed, women, or both—hardly a distinguishing range. But over the past decade, he's become one of hip-hop's best-loved underdogs among both fans and peers, thanks largely to a coy, singsong delivery that wafts above the beat. Unusually, he both raps and sings his own hooks, collapsing the divide between the straight-faced literalizing of the rapper and the mercenary emoting of the R&B singer (the former often hires the latter when the song requires an effect other than impassivity). And so Devin occupies his own corner of the map, writing rhymes about the occasional charms of a low-budget life ("Anything is plenty, man … better than nothing at all," one song goes) and serenading the therapeutic effects of "R&B," or "reefer and beeeeeer." It's the perfect voice for a face that seems eternally upbeat. While hip-hop drafts blueprints for overseas factories and new lines of fetish objects, Devin comes across as a happy-go-lucky Everyman in a clunky car, forging ahead for an honest day's wage.
Devin first appeared in the early 1990s as part of the aptly named Odd Squad. They released one album, the intensely funny Fadanuf Fa Erybody, in 1994. But their self-deprecating wit—"Can't See It" was a reference to the fact that one of their members was actually blind—was out of step with the cutthroat Rap-a-Lot roster. In 1998, Devin recorded The Dude, an excellent amplification of his good-natured persona. His profile grew the following year when he appeared alongside Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg on "F*** You," an unforgettably crass track on Dre's 2001. It was the perfect embodiment of Devin's then-growing appeal: While his Los Angeles comrades bullied their way through the song's titular directive, Devin's syrupy hook managed to make its anti-foreplay designs sound somewhat sweet.
In 2002, he released the brilliant Just Tryin' Ta Live, wherein "to live" essentially meant "to get as high as humanly possible." It featured the fluttery "Doobie Ashtray," a masterful lament about the need for weed in times of personal crisis, and the heartache of having your last puffs poached by greedy friends. (Spoiler alert: After a dry-mouthed scramble, order is restored when he finds a quality bag behind his couch.) To tha X-Treme followed in 2004, with more stories of lost loves ("I used to fart under the covers and she'd just laugh," he sighs on "She's Gone") and self-medication.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.