Ever since I could form any coherent opinion about music, I’ve been a cheerleader for hip-hop. I have vivid memories of dancing around as “Brass Monkey” by the Beastie Boys or the Sugarhill Gang played in the background. However, I have my reservations when it comes to the mainstream’s recent manifestation of hip-hop, my chief complaint being the shallowness of the content. Somewhere between the gritty realness of KRS-One and the sheen of P. Diddy, many MCs have chosen to only show the expensive cars, the Cristal, the large mansions and the promiscuous women that money can buy. Missing are the moral conflicts, the pitfalls and the spiritual conundrum of living a “gangsta” lifestyle. It’s unrealistic and, frankly, it’s boring. The best albums in hip-hop have always shown the good and the bad, just listen to classics such as Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt or Ready to Die. Thankfully, with their long-awaited follow-up to 2001′s Dirty Money, UGK have shown the balance—the dope game, the excess and the remorse and yearn for repentance.
With Underground Kingz, UGK have a lot to prove. Not only have they toiled in the late ’80s and mid ’90s in relative obscurity in the South (before the Southern rap explosion of the 2000s), they suffered a blow as cofounder, Pimp C, was incarcerated in 2002. The suddenly solo Bun B was left with the job to keep the group’s name afloat, certainly not an easy task given the short-attention span of the music industry. To top it all off, the cherry on the bad news sundae if you will, their label pushed the release of Underground Kingz back nearly a year. It turns out that the years of hiatus have acted as a productive incubation period for them. Underground Kingz deftly lays out the street machismo charm all the while Pimp C and Bun B relay their frustrations. Their rhymes reflect all that they’ve been through and their frustration of having to sit aside as the South exploded on the rap scene.
In album opener “Swishas and Dosha,” UGK seem none too impressed with the current rap climate, with what has replaced them as they were forced to be on hold. “I remember when a rapper was a go-getter/ Now all these rappers is some ho niggas,” Pimp C jeers to his successors. Similarly Bun B raps “you MySpacing and Facebooking, playing games with them toys/ I’m in the streets where gangstas meet while you online with them boys.” Throughout the album, UGK flaunt their underground legacy and audaciously rework two rap classics, Too Short’s “Life Is…Too Short” in “Life is 2009″ and Scarface’s “The Fix” in “Still Ridin’ Dirty” (even better, the songs feature their benefactors as well). The list of appearances is impressive. You have the expected turns by Three 6 Mafia and Big Daddy Kane, but you also have artists that are clearly pushing UGK out of their comfort zone: Dizzee Rascal and Talib Kweli. The inclusion of said guests reveal just how open UGK are as artists. One of the best songs on the album is the single, “Int’l Players Anthem (I Choose You),” which has UGK trading rhymes with the kings of Southern hip-hop, Outkast. “Int’l Players Anthem” benefits from one of the best samples in Willie Hutch’s ballad “I Choose You.” The exquisite soulful strings and sweet chorus paired with Andre 3000′s lovestruck lyrics perfectly offsets Pimp C’s decidedly more masculine sneer.
Much of disc one sets the tone of UGK as the under-appreciated kings of the rap game; the upperclassmen if you will. Bun B smoothly rhymes about holding true to old school values like respect, valor and honor. While Pimp C delivers the biting commentary in a languid pace: “we were the first niggas talkin’ about wood wheels/ came up with the word, that’s why we so trill.” In fact much of disc one delivers the expected street, pimp, drug talk but it is smartly contrasted with the works on disc two. It’s the more serious tones on disc two that becomes the real revelatory experience and where UGK’s talent as MCs and producers comes through.
Disc two kicks off with “How Long Can It Last” featuring Charlie Wilson. On the track Pimp C reasons his sustaining the hustling game, acknowledging that it is wrong but needing to do so to support his family. It’s a stunningly mature song as he prays for relief, it reveals the moral desperation of the drug game. All of this emotional is wonderfully heightened with bluesy guitars and a rumbling bass giving the whole song an emotionally heavy feel. In the same drug vein, “Cocaine” has Bun B giving a quick history of the drug: “it’s been around for hundreds of years, exploited by the rich/ they even used to put it in Coca-Cola; ain’t that a bitch?” The wry rhymes are done over poignantly minimal music. A repeating blues riff of the electric guitar loops over simple drum beats, but it’s the lovely flamenco-inspired acoustic guitars that elevate the music to a whole new level.
“Real Women” has UGK step outside of their player personas. Bun B rhymes about how to distinguish real women from the “hoes and tricks.” Talib Kweli comes in giving a refreshingly uptempo take on women, but soul singer Raheem DeVaughn is relegated to incoherent warbling in the background. The song isn’t going to be a feminist anthem anytime soon but it is a nice contrast to UGK’s usual pimp view on women. If you want a really great track, you have to get towards the end with “Living This Life.” It is an incredibly honest and frank track that gets all the gut-wrenching internal turmoil of the gangsta life. Pimp C is very genuine as he raps about his difficulties and his apprehension in returning to church. Bun B further explores the moral issues at hand by trying to keep his faith in God though his actions are not so Christian. However it is Pimp C who closes the track with the best lines of the album: “I’m the product of the ghetto/ a flame of the city/ so I talk the language of the ave/ forgive my dirty mouth please I’m whipping slabs/ 50s, quarters and the whole thang/ balances my whole life on a four beam/ and I need codeine just to stay sane/ I’m steady praying to you but I don’t know yo’ name.” It’s a stunningly honest refrain and puts every song about the glamour of the gangsta life in harsh perspective.
With Underground Kingz, UGK make an album that flaunts the excesses of thug life, but also harshly and maturely reveal the moral dilemmas that come with it. The balance of the two is a stark and very real contrast that is lacking in other hip-hop albums and UGK should applauded for their efforts. What’s stopping Underground Kingz from being one of the best hip-hop albums of the year, is what plagues many other double albums: it’s too long. While there are many standout tracks, there are still points that can easily have been cut. All in all though, UGK’s weaker songs are still better than some MCs best efforts.
T.I. – King
Three 6 Mafia – Most Known Unknown
Clipse – Lord Willin’