Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, R. Kelly and De La Soul all know something that the rest of the music industry doesn't: Devin the Dude is hip-hop's best-kept secret.
The Houston rapper/singer, who has appeared on the most recent albums from each of those acts and is currently on the road with Scarface on his radio promotional tour, will release his second solo album, Just Tryin' Ta Live, on August 27.
The follow-up to 1998's The Dude contains some of the playful humor that made its predecessor an underground favorite among hip-hop's elite, but it is a decidedly more mature affair, as Devin's wildly devious exploits with women, the bathroom and drugs have been toned down.
"It's more serious and it's more focused than The Dude album," said Devin, who will also appear on Too Short's next album. "I had a lot of fun doing that album, and there's a lot of humor in it, too, because you could kind of tell that I'm having fun in the studio. This one, it's a more serious riff because we're paying more attention to the music side as well as the business side and trying to deal with it while still having fun."
Devin debuted in 1994 as a member of the Odd Squad. Scarface then recruited him to appear on his 1996 side project the Facemob. When The Dude arrived in stores two years later, a number of hip-hop icons clamored to work with the sexually slanted rapper and singer who listed weed, women and wine as his favorite topics.
Many of Devin's fans appear on Just Tryin' Ta Live. Dr. Dre produced "It's a Shame," the collection's somber first single, which deals with relationship problems, while Nas and Xzibit appear on "Some of 'Em," a cut dedicated to shady people.
While these selections may be the first cuts fans hear, they aren't necessarily a reflection of the entire album. "Those two songs are kind of serious songs," Devin said. "It's not a summary of the album. You can't take that and figure how the album might sound. The other stuff is kind of slow, soulful, groovy and smoke-filled."
Devin further explores relationships with friends, family and significant others on "Tough Love" and "WXYZ," while his satirical humor and keen meditations on life surface on the bluesy "Doobie Ashtray," which was produced by DJ Premier.
The slow, rumbling track details the highs and lows of life — literally and figuratively. "It has a double meaning," Devin said. "It's like when a person loses something, no matter what it is and how much it is. A rich man can lose a lot at one time and feel like he has nowhere to go, and a man that really don't have much at all could lose as much as a doobie and feel like he's left out. The song is about how you're going to face that. What is your next step? I didn't really answer it. I just asked the question."
On a more upbeat note, Devin traverses a techno-rap of sorts on the futuristic "I-Hi," where he displays his signature sing-songy style, drifting between rapping and singing.
Even as Devin digs into some of life's disappointing moments, he still injects his work with the type of humor that marked the work of such 1980s hip-hop acts as Biz Markie, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince and Cash Money & Marvelous.
"Those were the cats. Along with the hardcore stuff, they kind of opened doors for rappers like us," Devin said. "There's fun involved in it, too. It's not all what I can do to you, what your camp ain't doing. That's going to go on anywhere, but I wanted to put some stuff out there that they could maybe laugh at rather than get just one set of emotions through the whole album. Life is funny, too, a lot of times."
Even though Devin's well-liked humor doesn't saturate his second album, he's fairly certain his longtime fans will embrace his new, more mature sound.
"I won't know until the people hear it and I get the response," he said, "if they're like, 'What is wrong with you? Is somebody trying to kill you or something?' Nah, man, I'm just trying to live out here and do this business and this rap thing right."