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UGK’s Chad “Pimp C” Butler and Bernard “Bun B” Freeman are in their mid-30s. They’re still young men. They’re younger than Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Redman. And they’re about the same age as 50 Cent, Cee-Lo Green, André 3000, and Big Boi.
But find a gangsta MC whose nom de guerre begins with some version of “Lil’” or “Young” and ask him to expound on UGK, and he’ll probably sound like he’s talking about a couple of Methuselahs. One reason is obvious: Pimp C and Bun B started rapping in the oil town of Port Arthur, Texas, in the late ’80s, and they started releasing albums on Jive in 1992, well before Southern rap went national—that is, after the Geto Boys slowed down but before Atlanta blew up and Master P showed that his stable of drawling, underprivileged Gulf Coast MCs could be an economic force.
But there’s a deeper explanation why Pimp and Bun inspire the kind of reverence that is typically reserved for rappers who are either dead or much older: UGK makes grown-man music. The MCs are like the uncles who can still whup your ass at one-on-one. Bun’s baritone and measured cadences drip with authority and calm confidence, and Pimp’s nasally, tetchy flow is the sound of a man who never tires of letting everybody know that they’re fuckin’ up. And the beats—many of them produced or co-produced by Pimp C—are, well, timeless. They’re unfussy and soulful, in a Curtis Mayfield way, but they never sound out of place next to more crunkular grooves.
All of that is in effect on Underground Kingz, which is that rarest of hip-hop feats: A double disc that never becomes a chore to hear. Some message-board posters have suggested culling the herd, saying that the record’s 29 tracks can easily be reduced to an airtight album of about 15 or 16. I embrace it all, though, because even the slip-ups—including “Heaven,” a tinkly where-do-thugs-go-when-they-die song, and “Like That,” a guitar-besotted sex track—aren’t broad deviations from the disc’s overall quality standards. If anything, they serve as brief reminders that the gangsta mind-set is always capable of oversimplifying anything. It’s part of the aesthetic.
Which is to say that calling this stuff “grown-man music” is a relative matter. We’re talking about two unreconstructed street MCs, including one, Pimp C, who spent about four years in prison earlier this decade for failing to meet community-service requirements on an aggravated-assault conviction. Bun B is the more well-read of the two—he’ll reference Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson in interviews, if not on his records—but his rep as a hard rhymer is just as strong now as it was in the ’90s, when albums like 1996’s Ridin’ Dirty set the standard for much of the East Texas rap music to come.
On “Gravy,” the stunning slow-mover that appears halfway through the first disc, Bun does it like this: “It’ll put your dick in the dust/When I put one up in your dome/You’ll be leakin’ out plasma and pus/And your mouth’ll fill up with foam/So you gotta go hard or go home/Either be a boy or a man/Gotta pay the cost to be the boss/So you take the loss, understand?”
He saves some of his most forceful couplets for his car, though. “Let me introduce you to the baddest bitch alive/Can’t nothin’ fuck with her/When you put her in drive,” he raps on “Chrome Plated Woman,” and on “Candy,” his high-gloss auto “drips an unerasable stain/It’s real magic, not like that motherfucker David Blaine.”
Pimp C, likewise, spins simplistic metaphors and similes into something more vigorous. He raps on the title track about his nearly two decades in UGK: “The ups and the downs/The cryin’ and the smilin’/Fuck what you heard, UGK is a island/Away from you niggas/But we still solid land/Sharks swimmin’ in that water/Put your nuts in the sand.” But he can also see the big picture. On the single “The Game Belongs to Me,” he notes that the pimp life has been eased, to some extent, by technology: “Bitch ain’t gotta hit the track/Ain’t gotta give no tricks no head/Ain’t got to give no tricks no pussy/Just cameras and screens/Easiest money you can get/It’s the American dream.”
Still, neither of them strays far from the drugs-girls-cars-money matrix. Nor do the guest rhymers. The weddings-and-spaceships intro by André 3000 on “Int’l Players Anthem (I Choose You)” is already legendary, and Big Boi’s nasty verses on the same song are equally memorable (“Girl don’t touch my protection, I know you want it to slip”). Dizzee Rascal’s appearance on “Two Type of Bitches” is pitch-perfect (read: just filthy enough); Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap don’t embarrass themselves on “Next Up”; and Too $hort, Scarface, Slim Thug, and Talib Kweli don’t wear out their welcomes.
The guest producers also do exactly what they’re supposed to do. They often stick to a few basic elements (electronic percussion and languid bass lines, accented with subdued piano or keyboards and wah-wah guitar), but all of it is formulaic in the same way that old-time bluegrass, good death metal, and the Ramones are formulaic: Despite the confines, the music consistently finds a sweet spot. Prime examples: The understated groove by AVEREXX on “Gravy,” the jazzy, vaguely house mood that Scarface sets for “Candy,” and the downtempo, trunk-shaking bass drum pattern by the Blackout Movement on “Cocaine.”
On that last track, Rick Ross might have the album’s most well-placed cameo, if not necessarily the best one. The song revisits the age-old theme of “drugs as unsavory tool of the establishment,” and it sets Ross up perfectly. It’s divided into thirds: Pimp C begins as the street-level dealer (“I played it by the rules/And the regulations/I used to switch cars with the Mexican at the gas station”), while Bun B provides the obligatory historical context (“You had kings, queens, princes, and princesses/Even priests and popes partook in it in different instances”). Ross then brings it home as the big-timer, with a burst of gruff egotism: “I can ship it to you/Or you can come and get it/Just bring a cool million with you when you come and visit.” It doesn’t matter if he’s full of shit; the topic is, after all, cocaine.
It’s important to note that Pimp and Bun willfully allow Ross to handle that Hollywood-flavored moment. The subtext is that UGK hardly strays from what the MCs learned in the Port Arthur ’hood. To the duo, the manly thing—or the Southern thing—is to hew as closely as possible to the core topics of the street, because true pimps and thugs are America’s alpha rebels. And on Underground Kingz, that theme—for all its attendant fictions and exaggerations—still has surprising vitality. The testosterone flows, but it never flows out of control.