The Dude Abides
In about 11 hours, Devin the Dude will be slinking around the margins of the upstairs area of Toc Bar, which will be full of people waiting to listen to his newest album, Suite 420. He'll be appreciative of everyone that'll come out and even say as much. But in a few seconds, he'll be on the other end of our phone call, singing for no reason at all.
Devin: OooohhhhhWEEEeeee, OooohhhhhWEEEeeee...
Houston Press: Um, hello?
Devin [laughs]: What's up?
HP: Hey, man. Ummm, so do you have time to talk?
Devin: Yeah, I just gotta stop and get this six-pack in a few minutes, that'll be the only distraction.
Devin the Dude is Houston's drowsy-eyed hip-hop savant. He's a genius, although not nearly enough people have seemed to notice. Not after Scarface cosigned for him as early as the '90s. Not even after Snoop, Dre, Andre 3000 and Lil' Wayne cosigned for him in a particularly dominating, wildly underrated five-year stretch between 2002 and 2007.
That's probably mostly because he exists in a perpetual state of perceived mania. Weed, drink and pussy, that's Devin. That's what he's about; that's all he's about. Ha, ha. Isn't that funny? He's rapping about smoking weed. And pussy. I smoke weed. I like pussy. We're best friends. Blah, blah, blah.
That's what people say, anyway. And, in fairness, that's a pretty accurate assessment. Including compilations but not his greatest-hits collection, Devin has released nine albums, four of whose titles allude to getting and/or being high, for a Weed-Related Album Title rate of 44 percent.
He's guested on approximately 9,000 songs about pot and 6,000 songs about pussy. He's read High Times magazine. He's seen porn. But there are two things wrong with that appraisal of Devin's career. Both of which are interconnected, and both of which Devin is aware of.
Devin is, at the moment, driving around the southeast side of Houston. When he answered the phone by singing, he did so just because. He doesn't even mention it again.
When he stops at the store to purchase that six-pack, he's right, it is a distraction. Several people stop him to talk, and he obliges each one. He moves the phone from his mouth, but you can still make out the structure of each conversation.
Mumble, mumble, mumble, warm laugh. Mumble, mumble, mumble, warm laugh.
He buzzes when he talks, same as when he sings, but not as heavy as when he raps. Even over the phone, it's an endearing trait. When he aims it at you, you want him to like you. You can hear his eyebrows creeping up towards the top of his forehead when he smiles like they do in all his pictures. More people are around.
Devin: Man, hold on. I gotta get off the block. Gimme a minute. You good?
Eleven hours later...
Devin the Dude is slinking around the margins of the upstairs room of Toc Bar, which is full of people waiting to listen to his newest album, Suite 420, the sixth solo album of his nearly two-decade-long career. A lot of people don't realize this, but Devin will be 40 years old this June.
"Man, how'd you know that?," he laughs.
Devin has a peculiar way of either not really answering any questions you ask him, or getting to the answer in a very roundabout manner. It's funny, and easy to mistake for aloofness. Which stems into where the first part of that appraisal is wrong:
Devin doesn't "rap" about weed.
To be clear, yes, he does have songs about weed. A ton of them. But "rap" carries an unsubtle connotation of inelegance with it, particularly when you're talking about pot. Saying that Devin raps about weed is like saying Van Gogh just doodled some sketches. Afroman rapped about weed. Bone Thugs rapped about weed. Devin doesn't rap about weed, he elevates it.
That extends into the second wrong part of that appraisal: Devin doesn't only rap about weed.
His albums are wickedly contemplative hip-hop, packaged slyly in stoner euphemisms and bathroom humor. Regardless of what he appears to be talking about, his lyrics are always weighted with chunks of introspective brilliance.
"What I Be On," the first single from Suite 420, is ostensibly about what he be on. But really, it's about being at the point in his life where the hipness of his grown-man vices is being engulfed by the forced maturity of getting older.
The second-best song on the album, an Isley Brothers redo called "I Can't Handle It," starts with Devin encouraging a girl to touch his boner and not let it go to waste. It will almost certainly be the only part of the song anybody remembers.
But after that quip, he shifts into a melody about how broken he is because a girl left him. It has traces of the heartache that made his "Anythang" from 2004's To tha X-Treme so moving.
The very next song is a tinkering, delicate walk where he sings over and over again, "Where ya at, where you at, baby? You said you loved me." There's no rap verse. There's not any verse at all. It's just him sing-talking.
That's followed by another R&B-ish track that opens with, "I ain't gonna chase you, baby. If you choose me, you choose me."
Nearly the whole back half of the album seems to be wrapped around the thesis statement of "I'm at an Important Apex in My Life Where the Next Couple of Decisions I Make Are Going to Have a Profound Impact on the Rest of My Existence." It causes a dissonance that gives Suite 420 a definite amount of gravitas.
Mind, there certainly are tracks where he's only talking about weed; the wayward and mechanical "Ultimate High" springs to mind. And there's a few tracks where he's just dicking around, like an interlude where he plays an old-man character who believes to "Google someone" is to stick your thumb in their booty hole.
But mostly, Devin is talking about life through talking about weed. Or talking about life through talking about boners, if that makes any sense.
Devin presents two separate images of himself in his songs. At one moment, he's a baked-out-of-his-brain party hound, simply floating through the universe. At another, he's acutely aware of absolutely everything that's going on around him. It's like he's a smart guy, but might not want people to know it.
"I guess you could say that's fair," he says.
"Weed, wine and women, that's what everyone talks about. I get that," Devin adds. "People don't notice that I'm talking about other stuff, too."
They don't. Devin wanders around the listening party as Suite 420 plays in the background. He doesn't dominate the room like Bun B does at his listening parties, or crave the attention like Robin Thicke does at his. He simply exists. And it'll probably always be that way.
Everybody thought Van Gogh was crazy until he was dead.
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