Live: Devin the Dude's Easy Charm
Higher than a thumbtack on a flier of Reba McIntire somewhere up in the hood
Devin the Dude
May 18, 2007
Devin the Dude's music is so loose and unhurried that his live show presents an interesting problem: he has to make intimate, unobtrusive, shambling songs big enough to hold the attention of an entire roomful of people, a harder task than you might imagine. Most great rap shows rely on some combination of intensity and persona: the Roots furiously display their raw technique, T.I. projects his iconic swagger to enormous levels, M.O.P. scream the ceiling tiles down. But Devin never leans hard on either quality, so it's a little harder to explain just what made his Friday night Knitting Factory show so completely satisfying. Where other rappers work to build momentum onstage, Devin never really pushes the energy-levels, and it wouldn't make sense for him to try. Instead, he lets his songs ripple and breathe, standing onstage by himself, no hypemen, Matt Sonzala standing behind him cuing tracks and staying out of the way. He never yells, never even really talks loud, but we can always hear every word he says. He doesn't miss cues or fall off the beat, and he even stays steadfastly on key during his singsong choruses. For someone who raps so much about weed, he's a model of show-business professionalism, smoothly and seamlessly transitioning between tracks and talking to the audience like we're his roommates or something. His charisma isn't the larger-than-life type; it's more of an approachable drunk-uncle kind of thing. He makes the simple act of performing look much, much easier than it is.
In its way, Devin's easy, unforced charisma is just as potent as someone like T.I.'s rangy, active charm, and he knows exactly how to make that charisma work onstage. When he wants the crowd to sing along, he doesn't give a whole lot of prompting. He just smiles and holds his mic out at the crowd, and it's not like we need a whole lot of prodding to sing along with "Lacville 79" or "Doobie Ashtray." That relatable quality has always been his best friend on record. It's not quite as prevalent on his newish one, Waitin' to Inhale, which disappointed me a bit even though I still really liked it. Nasty sex-rap has always been a big part of Devin's arsenal, but it's usually been self-deprecating and affectionate. Those songs on Waitin' to Inhale are more bitter and mean-spirited than usual, and that generally makes the album a whole lot less fun to listen to. A few people have pointed out to me that I fucked up in my Pitchfork review of Waitin' to Inhale when I said that "Cutcha Up" is about wanting to fuck an underage girl. The song is actually an extended joke about wanting to smoke an underaged weed plant; apparently I need to smoke more weed. Still, an extended joke that uses pedophilia as its basis isn't really a whole lot less creepy than a song actually about fucking an underage girl. And it's not that this stuff offends me; it's just that I don't much like listening to it, especially from a rapper who's made me like him by crafting such a likable everyman character. But the only song from Waitin' to Inhale that he did Friday night was "What a Job" his truly pretty life-of-a-rapper meditation. Older sex-raps like his verse from Scarface's "Fuck Faces" are just as nasty as his newer stuff, but they're funnier and more good-natured. And when he sheepishly recites them onstage, doing Blake Lewis wicky-wicky voice-effects and softly crooning his choruses, he looks like everybody's best friend. "Man, it's just impossible not to love him," the guy standing next to me mused at one point, and everyone else in the room was probably thinking the exact same thing.
I could be wrong about this, but I think Friday night's show was only the second one Devin's ever done in New York. If I'm right, the first show was just a couple of years ago, and both of them were part of the ongoing cultural-exchange program where Matt Sonzala books Houston rappers to do New York shows. These shows are always a lot of fun, and I'm really glad that Sonzala keeps bringing these guys who I might've never had a chance to see otherwise. But something else became evident with last night's show: random Houston mixtape rappers aren't necessarily any more fun to watch than random New York mixtape rappers. When someone is telling you to put your hands in the air if you love hip-hop, it doesn't really matter what their accent sounds like. A whole bunch of random Houston mixtape rappers opened Friday's show, and the only one I really liked was the slippery fast-rapping Bavu Blakes. There was also this one New York guy who stood outside the show all night trying to get us to buy his CD and then guilt-tripping us for not supporting "legendary hip-hop" when we wouldn't: "But y'all support Eminem though!" I didn't like that guy.