Friday, August 17, 2007

UGK is country funk to the fullest

Even when they were scrappy newcomers from a town no one in rap cared about, UGK's Bun B and Pimp C sounded like wizened old veterans. Pimp's beats were slow, organic country-funk instrumentals; they could've passed for Stax backing tracks if they didn't have so much bass. Bun's matter-of-fact, virtuoso, baritone flow exuded weariness and authority. Fifteen years later, the Texas duo sound like eternal, immovable features on rap's landscape, and their style has hardened into a blueprint; an album like T.I.'s Trap Muzik, say, would've been near-unthinkable without UGK's precedent.
But it's been a while since we've heard from UGK. Dirty Money, their last album, came out in 2001. Since that time, Pimp spent four years in prison for violating his probation on an aggravated assault charge. During Pimp's imprisonment, the South became rap's dominant region, and Bun kept the group's name alive by going on an absolute guest-appearance tear, popping up on tracks with virtually every major rapper working. Even after Pimp's release, UGK's label pushed back the release of this album for nearly a year. And so now the album's release makes for a weirdly bittersweet moment: Underground Kingz is an equally frustrated and vindicated album. Pimp hasn't forgotten what it was like to rot in a cell while his region exploded, and Bun hasn't forgotten that he had to keep his group above water by himself. Neither has forgotten a decade-and-a-half of record-label drama and elusive success, and neither seems particularly happy with a rap climate that they helped to shape. On album opener "Swishas & Dosha", Pimp sneers at his successors: "I remember when a rapper was a go-getter/ Now all these rappers is some ho niggas." Bun agrees: "You MySpacing and Facebooking, playing games with them toys/ I'm in the streets where gangstas meet while you online with them boys."Throughout Underground Kingz, Pimp and Bun wield their legacy like a club. They repurpose two rap classics, Too Short's Life Is...Too Short and Scarface's The Fix on "Life Is 2009" and "Still Ridin Dirty", songs that feature Too Short and Scarface, respectively. (The latter doesn't rap; he just shows up singing histrionic fake-gospel on the hook. It's awesome.) Other rap legends show up as well: Geto Boys bulldog Willie D snaps at region-dismissers on "Quit Hatin' the South". Houston depressive Z-Ro waxes elegiac on "Trill Niggas Don't Die". Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap, both old-school New York royalty, spit weathered threats all over Marley Marl's hard, simple track on "Next Up", and Pimp and (especially) Bun sound perfectly at-home alongside them. Most transcendently, the two trade verses with another legendary Southern duo, Outkast, on the gorgeous single "Int'l Players Anthem". Three 6 Mafia's DJ Paul and Juicy J throw enormous drums under a joyous loop of Willie Hutch's classic blaxploitation ballad "I Choose You", and Andre 3000's tender, lovestruck verse perfectly offsets Pimp C's megaton sneer. "Int'l Players Anthem" finds UGK in an uncharacteristically euphoric mood, and it just might by my favorite song of the year.

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