Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the Houston rapper’s 2002 album, where stoner logic and slacker humor becomes a timeless look into the psyche of the everyman.
Devin Copeland was more into breakdancing than rapping. Moving around Texas in the mid-1980s, he would link up with any dance crew he could find. Being himself trumped any aggrandized persona he could come up with. He was calm and lovable, a scamp, though this Devin that his Houston friends knew was not the one introduced to America through the music video to Scarface’s “Hand of the Dead Body.” There’s Devin, posted up next to a cop car, mean-mugging as a neighborhood protest breaks out in defense of Scarface and Ice Cube. This is the most serious Devin the Dude would be for the next seven years.
Devin was always “the dude,” another cast member in Rap-A-Lot Records’ long history of colorful characters who never fit hip-hop’s ideal image of a star. He didn’t have Scarface’s mystique, Bushwick Bill’s outrageous stage persona, or Big Mike’s blunt delivery. He and his group the Odd Squad—a rag-tag trio of misfits turned best friends featuring Jugg Mug and the blind rapper DJ Rob Quest—defied all conventional Rap-A-Lot logic. They were funky class clowns, messing around with samples and instrumentals and delivering only one album, 1994’s rollicking Fadanuf Fa Erybody. The Odd Squad’s sound didn’t come anywhere near the rugged sides of Houston, instead opting for back-of-the-crate samples of Milt Jackson, the Crusaders, and the Five Stairsteps. It was part East Coast boom-bap, part juvenile raps about sex (“Your Pussy’s Like Dope”) and weed (“Rev. Puff”). The album crashed and burned; later that year, Rap-A-Lot poured its resources into Scarface’s hard-bodied The Diary instead. With dreams of a second Odd Squad record dashed by the label, Devin determined he could be just as good on his own.
The road towards Devin the Dude’s second solo album, the quixotic and subtly titled Just Tryin’ Ta Live, made it seem like he was being primed for stardom. There was Devin on the chorus of “Fuck Faces,” a sex romp from Scarface’s 1998 album My Homies that evolved into a cult classic. A year later, Dr. Dre tapped Devin for “Fuck You,” off of Dre’s explosive 2001, plucking him off of shows with Dre protégé Mel-Man. Houston’s favorite weed head, the guy type-casted for stoner comedy soundtracks, was suddenly a known entity outside of city limits, though not really a household name. “I’ve never considered myself a star,” he told Noisey in a 2017 profile. “I feel like I am no better than anybody else, and sometimes I don’t get the girl at the end.”
Devin’s previous album, his 1998 debut The Dude, amped up the goofball nature of Fadanuf and packaged it around verses from Scarface, the Odd Squad, and others. It had all of the same crude sexual humor that made Devin an outright star on “Fuck Faces” but as the album wore on, it flattened out. Devin intended Just Tryin’ Ta Live to lean more into the music than his humor, alluding in a 2002 interview with MTV to a more “serious riff” going through the album. The sound of Devin’s world—green, hazy, and funky—also had space for deeper meaning.
And by trying to be serious for once, Devin the Dude unlocked his secret power: creating moments more realistic than any of his Houston counterparts. Just Tryin’ Ta Live is the kind of rap album where you don’t even need to aspire to be Devin—mainly because he’s high and non-aspirational. It’s a ne’er-do-well opus, a 60-minute stretch of time where the narrator could be any person on any given day. Off sheer charm and confidence, Devin could make you rally behind having a shitty car—as long as you had a car, you won. Other Houston rappers indulged in mafioso fantasies or wild capitalistic flexes. Devin’s world was hard, but he always took it easy.
At the onset, Just Tryin’ Ta Live attempts to balance Devin’s would-be superstar status with his affable, BarcaLounger nature. It cultivates and further expands on Devin’s everyman persona, a man more concerned with “reefer and beer” than being the biggest rapper alive, much less on his block. It’s a self-awareness few artists could crystalize or even approach; Devin does it for an entire album. The opener, “Zeldar,” imagines an alien traveling through space and time just as Devin would, using weed to cure anxiety but remaining an outcast: “I rolled into the hood/I’m greeted, but it wasn’t all good/I saw mixed people all kinds of colors and they looked at me like I was weird.” Producer Domo’s pianos and cartoon sound effects play around as Devin attempts to bring levity to his celebrity: “My name is Zeldar and we shop at Walmart.”
Devin might yearn for the high of celebrity, but he also relishes the lows of normal life. “Lacville ’79,” a downtempo funk odyssey, unfurls as Devin overhears neighborhood gossip while being ostracized for his beloved, busted car. As long as he has his gateway to the world, a 1979 Cadillac Seville, he’ll keep on pushing—regardless if crooked cops know the stash spots underneath the dash, or if pedestrians gawk at his beater. On “Go Somewhere,” he drunkenly details a night where he’s stopped at the entrance of the club and can’t get in, despite being a guy who appeared on a Dr. Dre album. “The bouncer’s at the door thinkin’ I gotta lie to get in,” he raps before being accosted and interrogated. “‘You ain’t no motherfuckin’ rapper, where’s your gold and your diamonds?’”
The moments when Just Tryin’ Ta Live tries to bring in some outside perspective are jarring compared to the half-baked, wholly self-deprecating raps surrounding them. On “Some of ’Em,” Xzibit takes shots at nameless foes and Nas raps about how he wants none of the media scrutiny and racism aimed at the three famous Mikes—Jordan, Jackson, and Tyson. Such ambition is lost on Devin. His worldview is shaped around surviving for himself. The main character of his world likes rapping because it’s a fun job: You get to smoke, fuck, and drink. He often succeeds at doing all three.
Devin portrays himself as a sinner who loves free sex with no strings attached, a wanderer who won’t commit himself to one thing forever. But it never feels like a party anthem, because around the corner, there’s Devin experiencing a real-time struggle between being rich, being poor, and finding the happy medium. All of this is laid out on the album’s signature moment, the DJ Premier-produced “Doobie Ashtray.” Through his trademark scratches, sleepy guitar notes, and an ocean-deep bass line, Preemo taps into the Texas roots of his childhood and together he and Devin lay down the modern blues. “A rich man can lose a lot at one time and feel like he has nowhere to go,” Devin told MTV in 2002. “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?” A true stoner classic, “Doobie Ashtray” asks the question that lies at the center of Devin’s philosophy: Are you more with less or less with more?
Devin’s desire to become an everyman rap star traces back to Scarface. If not for Face, who hailed the Odd Squad’s lone album Fandanuf Fa Erbody as his favorite release of all time, there would be no solo Devin the Dude album. It’s why the two men’s stories—one who saw the world for its gravity and treachery and another who saw the spoils and desired no part in its weariness—are so intertwined. It’s the tao of Houston rap: For every hard-headed rapper who chooses to narrate the ills of society and how it affects them, there’s the other, who wants to merely live within said society and be content.
The resigned optimism of days spent in a fog of weed and Lone Star comes screeching to a halt on the title track and album closer. With a swollen guitar and drums beneath him, Devin raps about wanting to get out of his comfort zone, then relents at the last second. “I just write shit, hopin’ it might hit so I can make a living/But there some who don’t like it,” he reflects. “But I… I really don’t give a motherfuck.” It’s the climax to a film where Devin, steady on a mission to enjoy his vices without getting hemmed up, refuses to bust under pressure. Being himself, he decides, allows him far more clarity than attempting to be someone else.
Just Tryin’ Ta Live is about Devin the Dude being rooted in his own faith. Fame wasn’t going to find him the same way it found his friend-turned-fan Dr. Dre or one of his idols, Too $hort. It’s a rap album whose creator sees fame as a byproduct of his day job. He continued to point out the clear outline for his career: find simplicity as a man who uses rap as a profession, not as a mythical persona. The style wound up having disciples such as Larry June, Curren$y and Le$—self-made men who just rap, smoke, and enjoy cool shit. The Devin the Dude of Just Tryin’ Ta Live is never out of reach for anyone; he knows that being a man of the people, for the people, is the kind of fame money can’t buy.