The Dude Abides
Getting Deep By Getting High With Devin The Dude
"Parents, I'm not tellin' your children to smoke, ya see/ 'cause if they just say no, it be more for me." This line, from Devin the Dude's "Mo Fa Me" off his 1998 solo debut, The Dude, set the blueprint for everything the Houston MC has done since. Namely, write a bunch of songs about weed. Such fixation suggests a lack of inspiration, but the Dude's hazy tunnel vision belies the man born Devin Copeland's ability to mine a subject obsessively. Cannabis is merely an oft-chosen metaphor in an endless stream of goofy--yet frequently poignant--songs, stretched out now through more than a decade of music, starting in 1994 with his posse project, the Odd Squad, and culminating in this year's definitive Waiting to Inhale (Rap-a-Lot).
A Devin album is an experience, the aural approximation of "puff, puff, pass," and Inhale is his finest harvest. It's the most exemplary record of his blissed-out style: an overwhelming mess of songs, over funk--never phawnk--beats, rapped by Devin in an indoor-voice flow that, more often than not, slides into a beautiful and unexpected crooned chorus. When guests appear, they're a healthy mix of Odd Squad pals and like-minded rap stars. "What a Job" features Snoop Dogg and André 3000, recently awakened from his rap slumber, while Lil Wayne, the only rap weirdo to give Devin a run for his money, croaks a verse on "Lil Girl Gon." Devin can always depend on a few big names to stop by and elevate the forever slept-on rapper's visibility or grab him for a memorable hook.
Devin fittingly appeared on Dr. Dre's 1999 The Chronic 2001, and on his sophomore release, 2002's Just Tryin' ta Live, Nas guested on a track and DJ Premier and Dre provided beats. The beats were better, the album more cohesive, and his boundaries expanded, but it's still the Dude. Opener "Zeldar" is about an alien, Zeldar "from the planet Beldar," who raves about a strange leafy green plant indigenous to planet Earth. The DJ Premier-produced "Doobie Ashtray" uses a stoner crisis to address loneliness and other universal concerns: "If your phone got disconnected, no cash, and ya gas got cut off/ and the gal that you had that was helping just stepped the fuck off." On "It's a Shame," the Dude uses a club-ready Dre beat to drop a funny, but ultimately depressing, version of gangsta rap sexploits: "Go buy some herb and try to wet my worm/ with some bitch who don't even know my motherfuckin' name/ it's a shame." There's a moral, corrective side to the Dude that counteracts his weed-obsessed id.
The moral side dominated his 2004 album, To tha X-Treme. He becomes the "Just Say No" guest speaker everyone wants at their school. "Cooter Brown" swipes a Willie Hutch sample that laments, "Our life used to be so wonderful/ but ooh, look at me now," and a kind of sober Dude outlines his regrets: "Maybe they think my promises was premeditated lies/ and at a blink of an eye, somehow I'm not trustworthy." On "Go Fight Some Other Crime," he takes up the politics of "coughee"--the Dude's shorthand for pot--as he tells a cop (also voiced by Devin) "I'm just sippin' coughee/ Why dontcha' get up off me." Although some of the edge was gone for X-Treme, it's his most digestible collection of stoner fables.
For better and worse, Devin repudiates X-Treme's sanitized weed tales on Waiting to Inhale. The fables aren't entirely absent--see the affecting "Lil Girl Gone"--but the Dude purposefully dives into weirder, more uncomfortable places. On "Broccoli and Cheese," he tells a woman over dinner at Benihana, "this dick is so clean/ you can boil it with some collard greens." "Cutcha' Up" appears to be a song about pedophilia--cut is Southern slang for screwing--but it's really about the Dude's impatience with a maturing weed plant: "I can't wait till you get old enough/ So I can cutcha' up." He pushes the line ever further later in the song with "I'll be back/ to pull you by the hairs and lay you in the sack."
Gleeful inconsistency pervades Inhale, and although it makes for a sloppier listen, it's a better fit. A rapper with a near-15-year audio record of weed obsession shouldn't be reliable, so the jumble that is the MC's latest feels more like the Dude we've grown to know. The jokes are filthier, but at the same time the topics are broader; he brings political and personal conflicts out of the weed haze and into focus. "Almighty Dollar" is a political rant about inflation and gas prices. "Just Because" is a hateful love song that avoids Eminem territory thanks to the Dude's winning personality. He bounces scary violence off revenge jokes like "I'll sweep you off your feet with a box of chocolates/ but watch it, 'cause it's really balled-up hog shit," and then, in his sweet croon, qualifies the threats with "just because of what love does." Of course, the Dude is right--that is what love does to a person--and, just like that, he hits another awkward truth.
For more of that truthful awkwardness, see "She Useta Be," a lament about a hot high-school girl's weight gain ("from elegant to elephant"), and "No Longer Needed Here," an astute address to an idealistic lover on her way out with hopes of something better: "Go find that fountain of youth, that fantasy life/ where you don't have to work on it to make it right." It speaks to Devin the Dude's integrity as a rapper that, for him, "uncompromising" means effective guests, an overabundance of material, embarrassing realities, and taboo-breaking extended metaphors rather than gun talk and stripper anthems. The Dude always avoids the obvious.
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