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.
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.
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. 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.