Tuesday, August 07, 2007

make it reign

it ain't a game, ya dig?

Any other rap album leading with recent Oscar winners on production and guest verses by Outkast, would come off as a sell-out or cash-in move but when UGK does it you know the honor is being bestowed on the guests. And in the presence of The Underground Kings it’s no wonder that Andre 3000 becomes the more pimpishly monikered ThreeStacks and 3-6-Mafia lays down a classic uplifting soul break rather than their dark gothic crunk. “Underground Kingz” is a monument of the UGK aesthetic and throughout the long-players slightly excessive length Bun B and Pimp C maintain their Underground Kingdom with dedication and help from their loyal subjects: “pimpin and pandering,” candy slabs and wood wheels, and the hard hustle by even hardier hustlers.

One might guess that the pressures of a comeback (of sorts) for the duo might allow them to call in favors from hip-hop’s other reigning royalty particularly with designs on the charts or playlists. But the guest list is very selective. Less confident MCs might rely heavily on T.I., Rick Ross or Slim Thug verses but those more-than-respectable reppers of the current generation are shown their proper place at the table as Too Short, Scarface and Willie D seem to shine as brightly at least in the eyes of the two hosts. In fact the hosts seem to be bestowing an honor to all their guests. I wouldn’t guess there is huge market for fans of such MC diversity. Are Z-Ro, Dizzee Rascal, Talib Kweli and Kool G Rap really defining any demographic? Obviously UGK believes in a very personal ‘real recognize real’ rule of guest verses. It is the only way to explain the presence of Pimpin Ken.
The diversity of producers doesn’t stray to far from the UGK mold of soulful, funky, slow beats from the template set by Pimp C and perfected by 808 Boyz, from the predictable but funky guitar flourishes from Jazze Pha to the contemporary and dramatic long synth lines anchored by a heavy knock from The Runners on “Take Tha Hood Back”. Scarface honors Too Short by producing “Life Is 2009” and a portion of Goodie Mob’s “Free” is brought back by N.O. Joe. Scarface provides a reprise of his own “The Fix” on “Still Riding Dirty” and the video break for “The Symphony” is brought back by it’s creator Marley Marl. The biggest musical misstep is Lil Jon’s grating track for “Like That” but even those verses are somehow salvaged on the laid back remix by Below of 808 Boyz (tellingly showing up earlier on the album than the original).
And oh those verses…
You already know that Big Dick Cheney and Tony Snow hustled longer, stayed triller and pimped harder than the rest and you must also know that these Kings are not really focused on the glory of those successes. Although you can’t fault them for wanting candy chariots in their kingdom, UGK consistently brings a grown man’s perspective to their deeds however dirty. UGK’s mission: to challenge the new jacks to do better, not only as a taunt but also as a wish!

On “How Long Can It Last” Pimp prays for forgiveness for his survival choices. Bun’s percussive phrases ride the soulful and simple refrain explaining “people think hustlin is cool” but every hustler “wish they lived in the burbs, wished they didn’t have to hang” and more than likely “live with all of this anger and frustration inside.” On “Gravy” Bun gives gruff advice to young Gs to “play the hand that your dealt, that’s until it’s your turn to deal, otherwise you get it how you live, I could give a fuck how you feel”. Pimp’s solo effort on “Shattered Dreams” addresses young parents not quite hitting hard with the street hustle and suggests it’s “time to change somethin’”.
This sober talk wouldn’t be much without MC style, so although “Heaven” presents Bun thinking about the innocent kids, when he trades bars with Pimp in the last verse we remember why they are greater than just great reporters. “Quit Hatin’ The South” is a perfect example of Pimp C’s pinched, then stretched, then agitated delivery playing against Bun B’s steady assuredness and smooth but percussive flow (“You do what you can, I do what I feel, that there in itself the definition of trill”). It is a dynamic of contrast that great duos always have (Q-Tip and Phife, Dre and Snoop, Andre and Big Boi). It is tough to decide what makes a track so great? For example, on the titular cut, is it the simple but always original phrasing of Bun B (“Cross the line, nigga, push my button, and you gonna die in the very spot that you thought you wasn’t”) or the signature syllable drag that Pimp C exaggerates when he declares himself “Kaaayyng”?
The Bun B buzz over the last couple of years maybe hasn’t prepared new fans for the surprising stylistic dominance of Pimp C heard on this album. The slide he brings to last words in a line cuts through all the impressive play with rhythm that most of the other MCs bring to the cuts, including, amazingly, “Next Up” featuring Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap. Pimp actually steals the show with the last verse behind three of the greatest MCs…. ever. Three masterful bass rumbles somehow get faded by a high-pitched drag and drawl and double-ups on key words (“James!”, “Jones!”). On “Trill Niggas Don’t Die” Pimp C gives the killer flourish to a typical MC boast: “Pack the iii’hhn (iron) everytiiime and ain’t tryyyin’ diiiein’”
Of course Bun is just as brilliant but because of his ubiquity in the last few years, his skillz are maybe more expected. Very few MCs can deliver such force in even the silliest throwaway punchlines such as when he declares his car has “REAL magic, not like that motherfucker David Blaine!”

However limited their content, they deliver with panache. Put simply: I could listen to UGK talk about wood wheels from ’92 ‘til infinity…
It is not the number of subjects a King has but how he rules them.

UGK continue to survey and lead their kingdom however small, familiar or underground it is. On “Int’l Players Anthem” Andre ThreeStacks once again demonstrates compact rhymes that are loaded with meaning as he imagines what a Pimp/King might advise a young player at a crossroads in the game: “Keep your heart” and “Play your part”.

UGK, luckily, recognized their ruler role early and have maintained royal blood coursing in their flow ever since. They know exactly who they are and present that character on the best rap album of the year so far. “Underground Kingz” is T-R-I-double L… that’s with capital letters, man.

UGK - How Long Can It Last featuring Charlie Wilson