Devil Without A Cause Turns 20
In 1997, the fourth issue of the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal magazine included a long profile on a Midwestern rapper named Kid Rock. Kid Rock, we learned, had started the ’90s as a major-label hope and a protege of former Boogie Down Productions member D-Nice. He’d even released a full major-label album, one that attempted to position him as a much hornier version of Vanilla Ice, his white-kid Gumby fade reaching absurd altitudes. It didn’t pan out, and Kid Rock found himself back home in Detroit, dropped from his label. So he reinvented himself.
By the time Grand Royal caught up with Kid Rock, he was a local independent-music baron. The Gumby fade was gone. Instead, he grew out his hair and started wearing tracksuits and fur coats. He was rapping, in vaguely Bone Thugsian cadences, about pimping and mushrooms over Smiths and Butthole Surfers samples. He had a live show with dancers and pyrotechnics. He had no real hope of being anything other than a local favorite, but he was going to be the best local favorite he could be. That Grand Royal story isn’t online, though you can buy a print copy for $75 on eBay if you’re really curious. But I remember the tone being slightly admiring and mostly befuddled. Here, the article seemed to say, was this fully formed dirt-mall cosmopolitan hustler, living out in the middle of nowhere and establishing his own tiny empire. He was never going to come anywhere near the pop-cultural lordship of the Beastie Boys, whom he revered, but he’d worked hard to establish his own little fiefdom. Good for him, the article seemed to say.
A couple of decades later, that fiefdom seems a lot bigger. Twenty years after Grand Royal ran that article, that Midwestern rapper strutted into the White House in his most formal fedora. Kid Rock and his fellow Michigan asshole rock star Ted Nugent — another guy who’d once got a Grand Royal interview, though a considerably more combative one — were the guests of Sarah Palin, the notoriously incoherent onetime Vice Presidential candidate and living symbol of American ignorance. They were the guests of our new slimy-huckster President. Kid Rock had spent years attaching himself to dipshits like that, showing his haggard face on Fox News every so often and launching a hoax Senate campaign that seemed depressingly plausible.
So how did that happen? How did the pimp-rapping regional no-hoper find himself in the Oval Office that one strange morning? Devil Without A Cause is how it happened.
For once in his life, Kid Rock turned out to be the right man for his time. With the long shadow of grunge finally fading, rock radio was going through a bit of an identity crisis, moving from bright and sticky pop-punk to post-NIN pop-industrial broody bloops to quasi-ironic Beck-esque mumble-shuffles, no sound ever becoming dominant. But a storm was brewing. A whole generation of suburban kids had been spending their formative years listening to Dr. Dre and Pearl Jam, seeing no real reason to pick one or the other. Inevitably, smart people were figuring out ways to fuse those sounds, welding rap swagger to crunch-rock snarl. To different extents and in different ways, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More and Rage Against The Machine had found room for rap — or, at least, for something like rapping — within their stomp-rock. All of them had found huge success.
By the time Kid Rock inked his second major-label contract, those currents were converging into something transformative. Korn had found cult success on a massive scale, wearing dreads and sweatsuits while forcing their emotionally disturbed gibbering into vaguely raplike cadences. Limp Bizkit were starting to surge out of Florida, doing Korn’s style with way more unearned confidence and way less freaked-out self-laceration. The Deftones were still in the stage of their career where they chanted the word suck over and over on their biggest single. These were the new stars.
Kid Rock fell ass-backwards into this constellation, and he made the rest of it look dim. Whereas Korn and Bizkit and the Deftones were rock dudes hoping to appropriate bits and pieces of rap’s icy cool, Kid Rock was a genuine, bona fide rapper — not a great one or anything, but an actual rapper — who’d slowly and organically started fucking around with rock music. (He was happy to remind the world of it: “At 18, I had a hardcore attitude / When I turned 19, I was touring with Ice Cube.”) He’d formed his backing band only a few years earlier — calling them Twisted Brown Trucker for reasons that I can only begin to guess at — but they were already a road-hardened unit, thanks to all Kid Rock’s time on the Midwestern bar circuit. A onetime DJ, Kid Rock understood how to recombine shards of culture in ways that would encourage partying, not just moshing. And he was a showman, a circus ringleader, shameless enough that his hypeman was a squeaky-voiced rapper who suffered from the growth-stunting coeliac disease and who many fans mistook for an actual child.
Kid Rock didn’t really make metal. His songs had big riffs, but they were boogie-rock riffs, riffs that drew from Bob Seger and ZZ Top rather than Helmet or Pantera. And yet he was uniquely suited to take advantage of that rap-metal moment. That’s exactly what he did. He did everything he could’ve possibly done with his second shot at national stardom. And he stepped up, making the album of his miserable goddam life.
We’re about to get into some uncomfortable territory here. Kid Rock has been intentionally playing into his right-wing pariah character for years. He was putting Confederate flags in music videos before 2000, even though he wasn’t from anywhere near the South. He made a cynical slide toward country music, abandoning the rapping that first got him noticed and turning into exurban America’s corroded image of a tough-talking shitkicker. He’s stoked the xenophobia and reactionary tendencies of his own audience, as well as the mindless frat-party indulgences, erasing any nuance or inventiveness from his music in the process. He’s not a fun guy to have around. But we can acknowledge all of this while still understanding that Devil Without A Cause is a great album. Because that’s what it is.
Devil Without A Cause opens with “Bawitaba,” still the man’s signature tune. It’s a stupid song. But it’s gloriously stupid, its gibberish chorus chant taken wholesale from the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers’ Delight” (a song that, thanks to the Def Squad’s hit cover, was fresh in the minds of late-’90s suburban kids). “Bawitaba” is a cynical moshpit anthem, but it’s also effective as hell. Its riffs hammer while Kid Rock, staying in the pocket, screams his own name and establishes himself as a champion of the downtrodden: “All the crackheads, the critics, the cynics, and all my heroes in the methadone clinics.” (Rock’s acknowledgement that people trying to kick their addictions are heroes is under-the-radar empathy at work, one of the things that’s been missing from everything he’s done or said in recent years.) In the video, dirtbikes fly over Rock’s head at all the climactic moments, a feverish vision of boondock flyness.
But while “Bawitaba” was and is Kid Rock’s calling card, it’s also an anomaly on an album full of slicker, more playful grooves. Consider the honking squelch-funk of “Cowboy,” its harmonica tootles deployed with weaponized precision. Consider the Rick Rubinesque horn-blat stabs of “Roving Ganster (Rollin’),” with which Rock’s DJ Uncle Kracker comes close to justifying his later soft-rock stardom. “Wasting Time” is a sunny blues-rock lope. “Welcome 2 The Party (Ode 2 The Old School)” is gleefully silly Sugar Hill Records pastiche. “Only God Knows Why” is raw and heavenly feet-dangling-in-a-lake Southern rock, a harbinger of Rock’s later career that still manages to transcend almost all of it. (Even with Rock’s inadequate-ass singing voice slathered in copious Auto-Tune, “Only God Knows Why” remains Rock’s finest non-“Picture” power ballad.) The whole thing is absolutely alive with riffs and hooks and a furiously driven entertainer spirit.
When Rock does rock on Devil Without A Cause, he’s going for grungy swamp-blues, drawing on Monster Magnet or Alice In Chains rather than the turgid groove-metal types who inspired most of his peers. But the Kid Rock of Devil Without A Cause knows he’s a rapper, not a singer. Judged solely on his own merits as a rapper, Kid Rock was barely passable — a clumsy writer getting by on wispy-mustache charisma. But he’s got flair and confidence. On “Fuck Off,” he even manages to go bar-for-bar with another white Detroit rapper: a young, hungry, not-yet-famous, pre-Slim Shady LP Eminem, who gets in a quick cameo at the end of “Fuck Off.” Imagine Fred Durst trying to do that. The Kid Rock of Devil Without A Cause was 27 — the exact same age as Durst and Korn’s Jonathan Davis, and only two years older than Deftones’ Chino Moreno. But he seemed senior. He’d been through the ringer before. He’d seen some things. And he’d learned how to write a hook.
Moreover, Kid Rock was comfortable being funny. There are ways in which listening to Devil Without A Cause 20 years after release is even more fun than it was when it first came out, if only because some of those bits are just anachronistic as hell now. Consider the slight Austin Powers accent that creeps into his voice on the “Cowboy” hook. Or Joe C, yelling about being “three foot nine with a 10-foot dick.” Or this: “Used to call me funny when my nose was fuckin’ runny / Now I’m fuckin’ bunnies, makin’ fuckin’ Matchbox 20 money.” With Rock’s evolution into a right-wing talking head, it’s fun to hear him bragging about how Ayn Rand couldn’t stand him, so she banned him. Rock wasn’t the only person on late-’90s rock radio who didn’t take himself seriously. But he might’ve been the only one who wasn’t making a performance-art stunt out of not taking himself seriously. He might’ve been the only one who genuinely only wanted to have fun.
Not all of this has aged that well, of course. A few of the punchlines that were assholishly funny at the time are now just assholish: “I don’t like small cars or real big women / But somehow I always find myself in ‘em.” I wish he wouldn’t have done that G Love flow on “I Got One For Ya.” And then there’s the moment that seemed like a bad idea even at the time. On the album-closing “Black Chick, White Guy,” Kid Rock became the only white rapper I’ve ever heard dropping an N-bomb. And he even does in it a generally derogatory way, talking about one of his ex’s exes!
For a while there, “Black Chick, White Guy” is an amazing closer, a painfully honest recounting of a squalid and fucked-up relationship, one that involves betrayals an reunions and children. For the space of that one song, Rock drops the redneck-pimp persona and allows himself to come off as both a simp and a vengefully smitten dork. But there is that word, used so casually, which sounded just as wrong then as it does now. This was an older song, one that Rock repurposed from his underground records, and yet apparently nobody told him to edit himself. It’s pretty amazing. With that in mind, maybe Rock’s late-career conversion isn’t that out of character. The weirdest thing about that whole episode: At the time, when Kid Rock was selling millions upon millions of records, nobody said shit about his use of that one word. It wasn’t even remotely a controversy.
At that moment, I guess, the world was divided into two camps: Those who’d already dismissed Kid Rock as a buffoon and those who were blinded by the force of his hooks. Because those hooks were something. Listen to Devil Without A Cause and you will hear a self-styled polyglot coming into his own and grabbing his moment. It’s an album charged with the energy of a guy finally getting his shot at dragging himself out of obscurity. It’s sharp and bright and nasty, its grooves coming from Stax and Southern rock and pre-Run-D.M.C. rap. It moves. And people responded. Devil Without A Cause came out on the same day as Follow The Leader, Korn’s third album. Follow The Leader was explicitly positioned as the album that would break nü metal through to the mainstream and turn it into a commercial juggernaut. And that’s pretty much what happened. Follow The Leader was huge. It changed everything, rewriting the rules for how rock bands would convey angst, how they would dress and talk and comport themselves. But Devil Without A Cause still sold more than twice as many copies as Follow The Leader. Devil Without A Cause was a pop leviathan.
On the title track of Devil Without A Cause, Kid Rock repeatedly brays an absurd claim: “I’m going platinum!” This was a ridiculous thing for Kid Rock to be saying. He’d never even sniffed tin, and he was talking about platinum. Well, it happened. It happened over and over and over. Two years after Devil Without A Cause, on the victory-lap single “American Bad Ass,” Kid Rock reflected on that claim over a Metallica sample: “I did. Not. Stutter. When I said that I’m going platinum selling rhymes / I went platinum seven times.” It was true, and then the album went platinum a few more times after that. You can argue with a lot of things. But you can’t argue with facts.