No Fog Machine Necessary: Devin the Dude at the Varsity
There were two things to be concerned about at the onset of the Devin the Dude show last night at the Varsity Theater. The first, longer-lasting concern pertains to the classy upholstered chairs placed around the periphery of the theater’s dance floor, and how long it may take for the dank weed odor to dissipate from them. There’s really not much one can do about that, as far as I know, though maybe Febreeze could help. The other problem, one more germane to the quality of entertainment for the night, was a sonically logistical one: Devin, a Houstonian with one of the most laid-back and smoothest voices in hip hop, would be performing on a stage flanked by some severely heavy bass-pumping speakers. Would he actually wind up getting drowned out by his own beats?
Unfortunately, he nearly was for the first couple songs – including the opener and a personal favorite, the title cut to his better-than-its-name 2004 album To tha X-Treme. It became one of those situations where it was actually fortunate that a rapper shared the stage with a whole bunch of other MCs – in this case, members of his original crew the Odd Squad and its offshoot Coughee Brothaz – because the man of the hour was reduced to a slick-flowing yet hard-to-decipher murmur. And when his mic got turned up, he got hit with the occasional burst of feedback, which is maybe the least compatible sound thinkable next to his casually blunted drawl.
Fortunately the audio kinks got worked out before the halfway point of his set, and with his voice finally as clear and resounding as the loping, Caddy-suspension-smooth Southwestern g-funk, his appeal came through a lot more readily. Though he’s known to touch on subjects as modest as the difficulty of stretching a tight budget (“Almighty Dollar”), his high-maintenance beat-up hooptie (“Lacville ‘79”) and the shame of getting caught in a DWI (“I Can’t Make It Home”, the best cut from his new album Landing Gear), his main obsessions are weed and sex, the former to an extent that makes Cypress Hill look like Minor Threat and the latter that’d have the people who thought Luke Campbell was the worst that it got 20 years ago completely losing their shit. But even when he’s complaining about his case of blueballs and protesting that the quality of his dick is Bird’s Eye fresh (“Broccoli and Cheese”), he comes across as more charming than scuzzy. It’s not just that he has the kind of comedic-trickster air about him that would have Dave Chappelle playing him in Doobie Ashtray: The True Devin the Dude Story (a Showtime Original), it’s that he somehow pulls off star quality by being down to earth instead of larger than life. Like the chorus of his ’02 classic Just Tryin’ Ta Live goes: “Making beats, getting high/Chasing freaks, feeling fine/It's just the same old shit/But I think we ain't gone quit.”