Album Review: Devin The Dude – Soulful Distance

[Coughee Brothaz Enterprise/EMPIRE; 2021]

While mainstream popularity may have eluded him, Devin The Dude has had more than his share of big moments in a career of easygoing, nonchalant charm. From perfecting a classic DJ Premier beat on “Doobie Ashtray”, to appearing on Dr. Dre’s omnipresent 2001, to bringing André 3000 and Snoop Dogg together for the gleeful ode to rap life “What a Job” – to say the least, he’s seen and done a lot.

What’s more, alongside equally underrated favorites such as recent Verzuz “competitors” (read: besties) Too $hort and E-40, he’s made a career of being quietly, patiently consistent. Since his 1998 debut, The Dude, Devin has, well, abided. You’d be hard pressed to name a truly disappointing entry in his discography amidst a few practically classic releases (Just Tryin’ ta Live, To tha X-Treme, and Waitin’ to Inhale are essential slacker rap). Curren$y was surely taking notes.

Now, presumably at least partly inspired by quarantine boredom, he’s returned with his warmest, most immediate album in some time. Soulful Distance, much as its COVID-referencing title implies, finds Devin perhaps less interested than ever in the confines of genre, as he drifts – or even glides – seamlessly between hip hop, glazed-over R&B, and grooved-out soul.

Kicking things off with the title track, “Soulful Distance” very much taps into the pandemic’s looming presence, with Devin daydreaming of the day it ends and musing on the strangeness of our necessitated six-feet bubbles. But, in the end, he refuses to give into doom and gloom, keeping it positive with his ever-sparked spirit. Even when he’s addressing the American healthcare crisis, he keeps things comical, as on “My Left Nut Itch”, which is surprisingly graceful, not to mention catchy – even as his engineer steps in to tell him, “that’s not gonna work,” and he snickers about a “testicle clause.”

He keeps the features light, most notably opting for appearances from fellow Houston artists, with hometown heroes Big Pokey and Lil’ Keke on “Just Ridin’ By”, local legends Slim Thug and Scarface on “Live and Let Live”, and finally, his Odd Squad compatriots on album closer, “We Smokin’”.

Meanwhile, the production is consistently bouncing – albeit gently – and perfectly suiting Devin’s pleasantly glacial, conversational style. To any potential newcomer to the world of Devin The Dude, none of this is to call him lazy or dull: however slow his flow, he always remains clever, bringing a grin to all with even his simplest rhymes.

Now 50, Devin The Dude’s supreme consistency is, particularly for hip hop, more than age-defying. Ever the amusingly crude lady’s man, he’s never in a hurry, never feels pressed, and often feels like he hasn’t a concern in the world. This characteristic insouciance is perfectly captured throughout Soulful Distance – particularly on “Nothin’ Really Just Chillin’” – and his music is all the more addicting and comforting for it.