Happy 15th Anniversary to Devin The Dude’s third studio album To Tha X-Treme, originally released July 13, 2004.
There aren’t many artists out there like Devin “The Dude” Copeland. As a gifted artist with a laid-back delivery and smooth vocals, he’s equally skilled as both a rapper and a singer. He possesses panache a la Slick Rick while maintaining the intelligence a la Scarface. He can be simultaneously slyly humorous and deeply introspective. He’s a skilled storyteller who can capture all types of moods. And he’s a master at crafting albums that navigate both deep and entertaining subject matter without ever feeling strained. Devin is all of these things and more on To Tha X-Treme, arguably the greatest album in his extensive catalogue.
Devin got his start on Rap-A-Lot Records, the Houston-based label run by the infamous James “Lil’ J” Smith. Best known as the original home of the Geto Boys, the label was a delivery device for Houston’s best and brightest hip-hop talent. Devin first appeared as a member of the Odd Squad, who’s Fadanuf Fa Erybody!!! was released in 1994. Amidst releases by hardcore legends like Scarface, Gangsta N-I-P, Big Mike, and the 5th Ward Boyz, the jazzy, smoked out release was a bit of an oddity.
Devin briefly became a member of the Scarface-led Facemob before splitting off on his own as a solo rapper. He released the critically acclaimed and slept-on The Dude in 1998, following it up with Just Tryin’ Ta Live (2002) a few years later. In-between, he earned major respect from a dedicated fanbase and his peers, including many of hip-hop’s best and brightest. Prominent rappers began enlisting him to appear on their records, both for his lyricism and singing ability; he appeared on tracks by Dr. Dre, De La Soul, UGK, and many others between the late ’90s and early ’00s.
By 2004, Devin was one of the last artists standing on Rap-A-Lot. The Geto Boys were essentially defunct, and Scarface specifically had moved on to run Def Jam South. Devin remained loyal to James “Lil’ J” Smith and continued to record quality product. To Tha X-Treme was Rap-A-Lot’s best releases of the ’00s and one of the best albums of 2004.
Opening To Tha X-Treme with the one-two punch of the title track and “Cooter Brown” demonstrates Devin’s versatility. “To Tha X-Treme” is one of his many odes to his penchant for getting stoned out of his gourd. Over the mellow G-Funk-esque wail of synths and pianos, he proclaims to be “higher than a thumb-tack on a flyer of Reba McEntire in the hood” and brushes off criticisms of his character, noting “Some n****as think I’m soft, so they try to harass me / Some think I’m smart, some think I’m dumb, some think I'm trashy / Ask me who got that good-good shit I probably know.”
Devin then immediately follows with “Cooter Brown,” a thoughtful exploration of struggles with alcohol abuse. Playing off of a Civil War-era term for drunkenness, Devin displays great insight as he considers his alcoholism and how it impacts his life and relationships with others. Over a sped-up sample of Willie Hutch’s “Now That It’s All Over,” he laments how alcohol abuse turned him into persona non grata, rapping, “Look at me now it seems that everybody know / Where I been and even where I gotta go / And they’ll try to help me out if it would benefit them / But if not they'll probably be like fuck him.” In the end Devin has the self-awareness to know that he’s the cause of his own troubles, making the song the best hip-hop episode of Intervention ever recorded.
As a gifted storyteller, Devin often finds inspiration in the mundane details of life, imbuing them with humor and wisdom. Devin uses “Right Now” to detail his experience taking Ecstasy while on a cross-country flight. Apparently inspired by a real-life experience, he deals with surly passengers and reminisces on being so high that he “can feel the breeze,” which is an impressive feat while flying a commercial airliner.
I’d also imagine that Devin is the first emcee to invoke the wit and wisdom of Br’er Rabbit, as he does on “Briar Patch.” Devin’s clever take on dealing with confrontation is quite creative. The song plays as a first-person account of Devin attempting to out-smart a group of potential attackers on the streets through psychological means.
On “Go Fight Some Other Crime,” Devin details his interaction with a police officer who pulls him over because his “dog smelled marijuana from the inside of my car.” Besides it being a smooth track that treats a serious situation with genuine flashes of humor, it’s an exercise in flawless sound mixing and editing, as it creates the scene around the traffic stop perfectly, from Compton’s Most Wanted playing out of the car stereo to the officer’s dog persistently barking in the background to the ambient traffic noise.
Though Devin engages in lots of girl chasing throughout To Tha X-Treme, he also devotes two songs to dealing with the consequences of infidelity, even in a humorous manner. On “What?” Devin continuously attempts to hide his indiscretions, both past and present, from his current girlfriend, only for her to turn the tables on him when they vacation in Jamaica together. “She’s Gone” is Devin’s lamentation over the love of his life presumably leaving him, for what he imagines is because of his own infidelities. It’s often maudlin in a completely tongue-in-cheek manner, and features not one, but two “twists” at the end.
Many different hip-hop tracks have been recorded about the virtues of smoking marijuana, and Devin has recorded many of them. However, I maintain that “Motha” is one of the finest odes to good green that has ever been recorded. Some of it has to do with the musical backdrop, produced by longtime collaborator Domo and D-Boy. It’s light and spritely in feel, featuring floating piano notes and a skanking guitar and percussion that give the song a reggae flavor. In terms of content, Devin regales the audience with tales of partaking in powerful weed with some of his closest fictional friends, including his Mexican potna Malito, Rastafarian Notty Dread, and Cleofis, a former soul singer. On its own, it’s not revolutionary content, but Devin presents it with a charm that makes the song absolutely infectious.
Devin really does have vocal chops, and he showcases them here on “Anythang.” Produced by Cory Mo, Devin mournfully croons over a loop of the piano intro from Rick James’ “Hollywood,” creating an ode to learning how to deal with emotional pain and staying motivated in the face of adversity. It’s as soulful and moving as any hip-hop track featuring a rapper singing.
And sometimes Devin just cuts loose. “Tha Funk,” featuring Memphis hip-hop pioneer 8-Ball, is Devin’s dedication to providing the uncut funk on record. The track lives up to its name, filled with truly funky live instrumentation, including “Bass, keys, board, lead / Drums that explode and make your earlobes bleed.” Meanwhile, “Party” is an authentic tribute to the old school. Longtime Rap-A-Lot affiliates K.B. and Man Child join Devin, rhyming over a loop of Kano’s “I’m Ready,” turning the track into a salute to the type of hip-hop created to keep house parties and discos rocking, complete with call and responses, as well as references to “Rapper’s Delight” and Beat Street.
To Tha X-Treme ends on an even more positive note with “Unity,” a feel-good track about accepting differences in others and learning to grow as a human being. Devin straddles the line between goofiness and sincerity like no other, as he raps, “But you can better yourself by listening to others / And what they got to offer treat them like sisters and brothers / Love them even though you disapprove sometimes / We all have faults; I know I got mines.” And, because he’s Devin, he reminds listeners that smoking good weed can make it easier to interact with others.
Devin still goes strong without abatement, even after leaving Rap-A-Lot. By all accounts he’s a constant presence in the studio, and has released at least eight more albums since To Tha X-Treme. Just a week ago, he released Still Rolling Up: Something To Ride With without any hype or warning, and it’s a strong entry into what’s shaped up to become of the most unheralded yet impeccable discographies in hip-hop.
Devin continues to showcase his ability to get more mileage out of tried-and-true subject matter. It’s good to know that Devin can effortlessly release albums in the vein of To Tha X-Treme that remain their own unique entities. There may not be many albums like To Tha X-Treme, but Devin has proven time and time again that he can build on his artistic success.