Kid Rock - Devil Without a Cause
he Diamond is an apt name for albums certified for 10 million + sales by the Recording Industry Association of America. The hardest substance on earth: insoluble, impervious to penetration, secure in itself. "The formation of natural diamond requires very specific conditions," Wikipedia says. The aim of this feature is to define what made Cracked Rear View, Come On Over, Boston and The Lion King soundtrack not just sales benchmarks of their respective artists' careers, but inexplicable loci at which shrewd marketing and the inscrutability of mass market taste met to produce high-quality entertainment no one breathing could escape. This column will also study why artistic peaks like Rumours, Born in the U.S.A., Thriller, Can't Slow Down, and Hysteria deserved their sales. Each entry in this series will pose the question: why should we separate art from commerce?
After over a decade of circuit touring with limited commercial success, by 1999 the world was finally ready for Kid Rock. Eminem had made it acceptable for trailer trash kids from Detroit to be pop stars, Korn had made it acceptable for white guys to scat over hard rock beats (and Limp Bizkit had made it OK for them to look like horny idiots while doing so), and Verne Troyer had made it acceptable for midget sidekicks to be cool again. It was finally time, as he improbably puts it himself on the album’s title track, for Kid Rock to “make Matchbox 20 money.”
More surprisingly, he did it with a pretty great album. The success of Devil Without a Cause was one of the clearest cases of the stars aligning for an overdue success since Pulp finally took over the UK in 1995. Just as you knew that Different Class would’ve won no matter when it was released, the commercial breakthrough of Devil was similarly inevitable—the timing would never be better for an Adidas-wearing AC/DC enthusiast from the Motor City to become a commercial force. The thing? It holds up fairly well—time-stamped and top-heavy for sure, as nearly all blockbuster albums are, but kick-ass nonetheless.
The obvious key to Rock’s artistic and commercial success is the way he takes on southern-fried hard rock, old school rap, and old-west country—three styles that, at the time at least, still seemed fairly divergent—and seems equally natural doing all three. Kid Rock sounds like a member of the Funky Four on “Welcome 2 the Party,” does Pantera proud on the bridge to “Bawitdaba,” and ensures a lifetime of free drinks in Nashville for “Only God Knows Why.” An impressive feat for any artist, much less one as unassuming as Rock (this is the guy who once wiped his ass with Radiohead TP; “musically adventurous” is not how I imagine he tends to describe himself).
Still, the best songs on Devil are the ones that tend to mix all three. Namely “Cowboy,” the album’s third single, and the one that solidified the Kid as a crossover artist not to fuck with. The mythology and methodology of the three genres intertwine so many times and in so many ways in this song that they eventually become inextricable. The beat is obviously drum-machine based but still rocks country-style guitar picking and metal-based muted ca-chunk ca-chunks, while the lyrics pimp out in clever pun-based arrogance, the way Ludacris would rise to national prominence a few years later, and drop references to Kansas and Falco (?), all while being firmly set in the old-west mold. Kid Rock would get to officially take his place in the rap-rock legacy when he performed “Walk This Way” at the ’99 VMAs with Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C., but where “Walk This Way” was content to just combine the genres, Rock showed that in time, we might not even know the difference between them.
Devil isn’t without its stumbles. Rock mars his otherwise great “Fuck Off” (featuring a pre-Slim Shady LP Eminem!) with an unnecessary extended lead-in to “Where U at Rock,” in which he plays a number of answering machine messages wondering that very question (some of which, including his mother, have legitimate and pressing reasons to ask as much). “Black Chick, White Guy” proves that though Rock’s heart is almost always in the right place, as a sympathetic storyteller he still has a bit to learn. Over the song’s six and a half minute-long tale of child-rearing woes, Rock loses focus and lapses into judgment a couple times too many—he takes pause in one of the verses to label the female protagonist “SLUT,” which is possibly true, but disrupts the song’s otherwise compassionate tone more than a little bit. These missteps aside, though, Devil is a surprisingly consistent album—one where the singles stand out, sure, but the rest of the tracks do what they’re supposed to, and that’s to keep you from reaching for the "skip" button.
Rock’s success was unsurprisingly short-lived. After Devil, his only major hit was his country duet with Sheryl Crow, the uninspired “Picture,” which was enormously successful, but bore little of the Kid Rock that Devil fans had come to love (the first time I heard it I couldn’t believe it was him, it still doesn’t sit well with me today—MOR Rock just isn’t as exciting as the real thing). Supposedly a new album is in the pipeline, though, produced by Rick Rubin and featuring Peter Wolf of J. Geils, and one which Rock promises to be “full of bangers.” And if there’s one thing that Thom Yorke and Tommy Lee both know, and that everyone else should probably know by now, too, it’s to not underestimate Robert James Ritchie. Stick with the Kid, baby.