You may have seen me accusing rappers of refusing to change. I do that typically in relation to a perceived lack of personal growth, but the motive doesn’t really matter for the point I’m trying to make today. The fact of the matter is that we should be thankful for rappers who are resistant to change, because that way we get to keep our favorite artists. Why should Travis Scott forfeit his fluidity in popular musical languages, El-P and Killer Mike not continue their individual missions combined as Run The Jewels, Danny Brown detox and lose his edge, Vinnie Paz stop snarling at the world, Freddie Gibbs stop digging in his seedy past, Rapsody abandon her purposely female perspective?
Of course iconic hip-hop artists have gone through changes – for the better or the worse – but they usually were able to preserve what made them unique in the first place. Not trying too hard to change might very well be the secret to longevity. One individual we should count among our blessings is Devin The Dude. With phenomenal consistency Devin Copeland takes a deeply human (and sometimes what is called all too human) approach to writing rap songs. Devin’s raps can typically swing both ways. When first encountering song titles like “Don’t Be Afraid” and “I’ll Say Anything”, you can’t really be sure if you’re about to hear straight talk or dirty talk. In this particular case, the odds are even. “Don’t Be Afraid” is quintessential Devin at his inspirational best as he encourages everyone to take that risk they’re afraid to take. “Let’s not rewind, best hurry and move forward / Don’t trip and turn around, be worried by who saw it” may sound like something you would say to a child, but just maybe it is adequate language when trying to deal with situations you’ve been frustrated with since childhood. In fact “Don’t Be Afraid” deals exactly with the fact that life extends over a lifetime:
“Remember living is a privilege
Be patient with the children cause it takes a whole village
And you’re never too old to do something new
Don’t you remember the goals you put in front of you?
You don’t do something with your time, somebody else will
Have you chillin’ with liquor, powder and x pills
Gotta stop it if there’s no profit or progress
Not watchin’ what you consume and digest
Time to transform, remodel, renew
You can change for the better and still be you
Gotta learn to adjust to the conditions
Oh yeah – and stop bullsh**tin'”
Life is what you make it, thinks Devin, and since that is an essential part of his belief system, “You”, which happens to open the album, is really about the same thing, only from an even more personalized perspective. Everyone’s free to deride such simple lessons put into simple language, but in actuality the Houston veteran goes straight to the heart of the values shared by many rappers and US Americans:
“You’re almost out of time, is the bottomline
Every man should have a plan – you could follow mine
But will it work? Not guaranteed
But if you want something to grow you got to plant a seed
I don’t want you mad at me about the route that you chose
Is it a map or a trap full of doubts and loopholes?
Who knows what the future holds if you take a risk
Tighten up, make a fist, only stop to take a piss
Some people, they wait for s**t, some people strive
Some people park-and-ride, some people drive
It don’t matter how you get there as long as you never stop
Give it all you got until your time run out”
Today’s rappers are eager to prove their versatility with unsolicited singing, for The Dude singing is a way to add an emotional layer to his message, free of any personal pretension. Harmony is important to him, musically and mentally, and “You” with its almost indie folk guitars, old-style keyboard instruments and the vocalist’s slow drawl embodies Devin’s method to gently nudge you towards his point of view. The ephemeral “Plates of Ramen Noodles” works the same way and is yet another lesson about “hard work and dedication”.
Split from Devin The Dude’s kind personality we find naughty Devin. The aforementioned “I’ll Say Anything” champions the manipulative male who struts around like he is God’s gift to women. After Lil Wayne’s Emmett Till blunder some years ago, rappers should probably generally refrain from “I beat the pussy up” analogies, no matter who is evoked on which end. Poor choice of words aside, there are just some things that won’t change about Devin. There’s no need to stress that modern buzzword toxic masculinity, but like that old Ice Cube tune, ‘a bitch is a bitch’ in Devin’s world. Where he’s ahead of his contemporaries (or predecessors, think Too $hort) is that the women in his raps often have roles in relationships.
Where “Trap-A-Nigga” plays the old victim tune, “Sorry” finds him in a relationship that has gone sour, but not embattled enough to not echo her side of the story, while “You Got Me” describes a romance that could turn murderous. “Spinal” is a raunchy variation of the ‘break up to make up’ theme and “Pretty Little Thang You” crams way too many notions into one song. As much as Devin can be an inspiration in more universal matters, women – when addressed as such – should probably take his advice with a pinch of salt.
Devin The Dude is, in every sense, for mature audiences only – or for listeners looking to gain maturity. Longtime fans need not worry, “Still Rollin’ Up: Somethin’ to Ride With” is vintage Devin supported by smooth instrumentation provided by Blyne Rob (aka Blind Rob/Rob Quest), a musical partner he goes way back with. Some beats are just a tad bit too uneventful, but they’re compensated by the occasional more modern take (“Trap-A-Nigga”) and several tailor-made tracks. “Don’t Be Afraid” for example with its lush percussion and thick bass is pure audio bliss. He can afford to just cruise on autopilot (but not Auto-Tune) on one track (“Somethin’ to Ride With”), although his tongue sometimes seems slightly too loose (in a literal sense) during the album’s raps, and the gospel-tinged “I Tried” has the makings of an epic track but ends after the overture.
If Devin The Dude sounds like a rapper from another time, that’s what he certainly is. But let’s keep in mind that firsthand experience has informed this artform since day one. “Remember all the stories that the OG’s told”, Devin advises on his latest, most certainly aware that rap not only often plays the same role in our biographies, but that rap’s OG’s have the privilege to have their stories preserved for a potentially long time and a potentially major listenership.