Devin the Dude’s got problems. His Cadillac DeVille ’79 isn’t worth stealing, the cops stop him so often they know where he keeps his weed (under the dashboard), and his “electrical rear view mirror don’t move like it supposed to/Even the objects in that motherfucker need to be closer.” He spends most of his time trying to get laid, but his promise to wipe his ass “on your favorite bath towel” might explain why he fails. Devin knows himself, at least: “Me and my penis and my microphone/are working hard so I can get my lights back on.” For his visionary plan to work, people would have to know he exists, a problem that also plagues fellow MC genius Thirstin Howl III.
Like his mentors the Geto Boys and Scarface, Devin is an MC from Houston Fifth Ward, signed to the Rap-A-Lot label. Devin debuted with Odd Squad on 1994’s Fadanuf Fa Erybody!, a minor classic of smoking and cussing that promptly went out of print. In 1998, Rap-A-Lot got a distribution deal with Virgin and Devin released his solo debut into a pocket of awareness. Moving from stand-up comedy into the stoned zone wrecked the fragile balance of being a charming jerk. Icky and funny with Odd Squad, Devin became sleepy and mean on his own. Just Tryin’ Ta Live leverages pathos against pleasure properly, though.
Devin is an asshole in the tradition of George Clinton and Rudy Ray Moore, a shit-talker who thinks yukking and fucking is a life plan. His weed addiction makes him part of the Snoop generation of Clintonites, but his crap relationships with women are less a product of resident hate than crabby selfishness. That childish bluster is part of the charm—if you told him “No,” Devin would just fall asleep on your couch. Like Clinton, he enjoys the bathroom and bedroom equally, but what distinguishes Just Tryin’ Ta Live is the musical preference he shares with that other terrifying waste/sex synthesist, R. Kelly: rolling midtempos, clean electric guitars, and plangent, airy synth tones.
Things get in the way of tryin’ to live, though, including release dates. Released in August of 2002, Tryin’ was reviewed ecstatically—a full year earlier—in XXL. In the gap between creation and delivery, Rap-A-Lot extracted itself from the Virgin deal and became an independent label once again. Considering the list of all-stars involved in Tryin‘, Virgin can’t have liked that. Dr. Dre provides a dry pinot grigio for “It’s a Shame,” one of two cautionary tales about Johnny Law. Nas and Xzibit guest on “Some of ‘Em” and Raphael Saadiq is up in here, too. Best of all, DJ Premier provides his strongest beat in years on “Doobie Ashtray.” To match the mellow mood, Premier abandons his Fist of Death style to deliver a waterbed of organ drones and clean guitar. This makes Devin thoughtful: “You probably don’t have a big ol’ house on the hill/But if you did, just imagine how it would feel/If your phone got disconnected, no cash, and your gas cut off/and the gal that you had that was helping just stepped the fuck off/What’s really fucked up is now you’re just normal.” For a stoner, he retains information pretty well. “Just Tryin’ Ta Live” also features an alien named Zeldar who comes to Earth and discovers weed but, thank Jah, it does not feature rhymes about other rappers or the pressures of being famous. That’s one problem Devin doesn’t have.
And neither does Thirstin Howl III, but on the basis of stage names, he’s ahead of Fabolous. Skilligan’s Island is a compilation of singles and LP tracks he’s put out through his own Skillionaire Enterprises label over the past four years. Howl is a member of the Lo-Lifes, a Brooklyn crew who shoplifted Ralph Lauren Polo clothing in the late ’80s and early ’90s: “True B-boys don’t wear Sean John/Nautica’s not for all of us,” he says in “The Polorican.” That’s his thing—crime and laffs. Not Hollywood skits about electric chairs, but stories about Spofford Detention Center and how to shake the cops when you’re boosting leather jackets. Howl likes hard drums and punchy guitar stabs with minor-key keep-you-awake sounds, not surprising for a self-starter. When not incarcerated, he battles with jealous baby mothers and unfeeling security guards, collecting ideas as he goes. But that doesn’t mean his battle rhymes are battle rhymes, because he doesn’t dis MCs. His rhymes aren’t what Chino XL would call punch rhymes, either, because the punchline is usually himself: “Got kicked out, my mom said I could move back/if I proved that I didn’t steal my sister’s food stamps/Every parent’s panic is to have their little boy with a prison mailing address/She said my rep is not in question as long as she was one that gave me the boxing lessons.” It brings to mind a rookie from Detroit who was co-billed with Howl in 1999 on the DJ Spinna track “Watch Dees,” included here. Spinna brings the Jaws theme and a Madness sample (!) while a new MC named Eminem threatens to steal the track like a Lo-Life: “Whose arm is this? I must have cut it off of the pharmacist/who refused to renew my seventh prescription of Darvocet.” But Howl hangs on like a security bracelet: “I hit harder than Foreman/landing both gloves to a low blow with no cup/I leave you Speech-less like when Arrested Development broke up.” In the intervening years, Eminem’s apparently become popular, and Howl’s stayed indie. If he can’t catch a little light from the Shady oligarchy, maybe Howl and Devin can go for a drive together. In someone else’s car.