Straight out of Houston, Devin the Dude has built his career on being unpretentious. Rapping about sex, beer, weed, broken cars, parking lot pimpin', weed and more weed, he carbonates back-door narratives and loopy hedonism with funny insights that verge on philosophy. Add that to a set of lovable vocal ticks (sometimes it sounds like he swallowed a turntable) and a featherweight vocal attack that hits two ways (as a syllable-flipper and as a wonderfully unaffected singer), and you've got a serious multi-threat.
Handpicked by Dr. Dre for The Chronic: 2001 and invited along for the subsequent "Up in Smoke" tour, Devin seemed poised for superstardom early in the millennium. "I'm accepting an award downtown tonight from the mayor," he said to me from his house in Houston.
"Oh, cool. For what, your last album?"
"I don't know, I guess just for bein' Devin."
The easy icon stays in an insulated Houston -- moving slowly, staying high, getting recognized, getting girls. But with all the love -- and all the weed -- it must also be easy to miss the massive potential of never-was shoulda-beens.
After "Up in Smoke," Devin should've dumped Rap-A-Lot Records' beat team for an album full of Dr. Dre bangers. He should've gone for the pop limelight like Xzibit, even if it meant losing some credibility. He could have ushered in a whole new era of West Coast Cadillac party-funk. But he didn't do that.
After the classic DJ Premier team-up "Doobie Ashtray" off 2002's Just Tryin' Ta Live, Devin worked with East Coast titans the Roots and De La Soul, as well as underground phenom J-Zone. After Roots drummer ?uestlove gave Devin a spot in Okayplayer, a loose hip-hop collective and record label, Devin could have exploited it for a fresh career path.
Instead, he kept it real. Having been signed by the Geto Boys' Scarface to Southern force Rap-A-Lot Records, Devin stayed true to producers Rob Quest, Domo and Blind Rob, who specialize in greasy elevator Muzak for a place with no elevators. Live, loverman bass and the occasional cheesy saxophone solo give Devin's backdrops a distinctive feel: dollar-store funk. Lyrically, he could have been doing either the West or East Coast proud, but his next two albums, 2004's To Tha X-Treme and 2007's Waitin' To Inhale remain precious for sticking to their swap-meet guns.
Devin is so dope that when he gets beat-jacked (as Bow Wow recently did on "Out of My System"), it's a No.1 hit. When he gets guest rappers, it's Lil Wayne (currently the best rapper alive) and fresh-out-of-retirement Andre 3000. So dope that he should sell a ton of records.
"But that's not really what I'm in it for," says Devin. "I move at a slow pace. I need time to absorb things. Look, I just got back from Oslo and Bergen [in Norway], I was up in Sweden ---- they love it, man. I could never imagine I'd be in this position. I'm your favorite rappers' rapper ... yeah, just the thought of it is overwhelming."
Devin the Dude and guests at the Big Easy on Saturday, Aug. 11, at 8 pm. $25. Visit ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.??