STRAIT TO THE POINT: UGK – UGK 4 Life (2009)

Review By Michael Strait

ugk4life

I’d call this bittersweet, but that’d be inaccurate. This is bland.

Well, ain’t this a disappointment? Five albums, four of them brilliant, and then they had to go and release this. The best songs on here are merely pretty good, the worst is absolutely horrendous, and the majority – most offensively – are utterly dull, grey sludges that merely serve as a passable imitation of the UGK we know and love, convincing only from a distance. It’s a terribly anticlimactic end to a great career and a mightily sad obituary for one of the best rappers ever, especially since his posthumous verses here are probably the best part of the record. I’ve reviewed plenty of music much, much worse than this, but in terms of raw disappointment this one might just take the cake.

Still, it could be worse. At their very worst, UGK bottomed out at merely okay, and there’s only one song on this record (and, by extension, their career as a whole) that I’d be willing to describe as truly, totally godawful. That’s “Hard as Hell”, which is more a vehicle for major chord teenpop crooner Akon than it is a UGK song. Bun and Pimp’s verses try desperately to clamber out of the cloying mid-2000s pseudo-r&b muck (which all sounds especially pathetic, considering the record came out in 2009), but there’s nothing they can do next to Akon’s repulsive presence, and they are promptly pushed back under and drowned by his hideous, intolerable hook. It sounds more like a malicious parody of 00s pop rap than a real song, and it contains nothing of value whatsoever. The first time I listened to this album, I skipped it in horror after twenty seconds; the second time, I halved my speaker’s volume to make sure nobody else would hear it and assume I was enjoying it. If one must insist on owning this album, don’t bother with this one; delete it from your download queue before it even gets the chance to malign your hard drive.

There’s nothing else that bad on the record, but there ain’t much especially good, either. I’ll admit that “Da Game Been Good to Me” – the only hook from this album that ever springs unbidden to my mind, like the other great UGK hooks – comes kinda close, and it’s certainly very pleasant, but it sounds kinda like those various little tracks I devoted once line each to in my Underground Kingz review. Yeah, sure, it’s a good song, but does it hold up next to, say, anything on Super Tight? Of course it doesn’t. The only song that even comes close to that level on this record is “Swishas and Erb”, which has what may be the last great production Pimp C ever masterminded. There’s all those little atmospheric details Pimp loved – the distant, vaguely ominous horn sample; the barely-tangible piano notes flaring away at the edge of one’s consciousness like fireflies; the ghostly, soul-style backing vocals – together with a great bassline and a smooth, slinking hook. It’s a great song, but it’s still not as great as I’ve come to expect from UGK, and it’s not enough to make the album worth it when stacked up next to all the filler here.

That’s just what most of it is – stuffing! I can’t say very much about the vast majority of these songs, ‘cos really they’re all the same. Every song from “Everybody Wanna Ball” to “She Luv It” is the same, and none of them are better (or worse, I guess) than okay. They all have fairly boring, mediocre hooks, sorta decent funky beats, good (but not especially great) verses from Pimp C and forgettable verses from Bun B. None of them really achieve anything, and I get the impression none of them were made with any greater aspiration than simply being UGK songs. There’s none of the atmosphere, emotion, or buckets of fun UGK were capable of at their best here; it’s just a bunch of rap songs about, mostly, simply being UGK, and I don’t have much use for that.

This gets more explicit elsewhere. “Harry Asshole” is so direct and shameless an effort to get by on pure nostalgia that it’s almost nauseating, and I hate it on principle. It’s the instrumental to “I Left It Wet For You” (from Super Tight, remember?) with the infamous “hairy asshole” line from “Let Me See It” (from Dirty Money, remember?) thrown atop and repeated as a hook, and the end result feels rather Frankensteinian. It’s enjoyable enough on a musical level, since the instrumental to “I Left It Wet For You” is one of the best UGK ever made, but why wouldn’t I just listen to the original? What’s here that I’d miss – a Boosie verse? Eh…

The guest verses in general are usually disappointing, too. Snoop Dogg in 2009 was far, far removed from his glory days, and his feature on “Steel Your Mind” isn’t very good. Too $hort’s is better, but it’s hardly a showstopper. E-40 is great on Used to Be, but the various others are long past their prime, as is Big Gipp on “Purse Come First”. None of these songs are particularly good anyway – “Used to Be”, in fact, comes dangerously close to outright sucking – but the guest verses add an extra layer of temporal depression to the affair. Nobody is safe from time’s arrow, not even formerly great rappers like 8ball & MJG, and artistic death is inescapable.

Pimp C came close to escaping it – his verses, though not as memorable as usual, are indeed pretty good on this record – but he, alas, had rather bigger problems in the end. Death had to come for the Pimp in his sleep,  because if he had been awake I presume there would have been a fight. The lean killed him, as it has killed so many, including another just yesterday. I do think he deserved a better swan song than this, though. This ain’t a patch on a plaster on a cast on a bandage on UGK in their prime, and I do hope nobody in the world was ever introduced to them through this album or they might never have recovered. UGK are one of the brightest diamonds in hip-hop’s crown, and no amount of mediocre posthumous releases can dent the glory of the masterpieces they were once capable of. And besides, it could be worse – if you (like me) hold to the common belief that UGK were the Rolling Stones to Outkast’s Beatles, then we might have expected UGK to release a steadily worsening stream of absolute garbage for the rest of their careers, apparently drawing eternal life from the worthlessness of their music and continuing to ghoulishly churn it out until the eventual heat death of the universe. Death before dishonour, right?

 

 

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STRAIT TO THE POINT: UGK – Underground Kingz (2007)

Review by: Michael Strait

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Two hours of trillness might be a bit much for even the biggest UGK fan, but there’s a lot of great stuff in here.

This is, as of writing, the longest album I’ve ever reviewed, and it really doesn’t need to be. The six-year wait between Dirty Money and this might’ve made the fans antsy, but that’s no excuse to deluge them in useless filler like “Take tha Hood Back” or “Stop-n-Go”. There’s also a large number of songs on this record that are good, but in a totally autopilot way – songs like “Tell Me How Ya Feel”, “Trill Niggas Don’t Die” and “Underground Kingz”, all of which have catchy hooks, nice basslines, great rapping and almost nothing to set them apart from each other. So many of these pile up in the second disc that listening to it ends up being a kind of exhausting experience, even though most of the songs aren’t really doing anything particularly wrong. The stretch from “Two Type of Bitches” to “Tell Me How Ya Feel” contains the occasional unusual feature – great verses from Dizzee Rascal(!) and Talib Kweli, the minimally-applied bass on “Candy”, the almost frighteningly weird prospect of Pimp C calling women “queens” on “Real Women” – but for the most part it’s the sort of music that’s much easier to zone out to and blankly enjoy than it is to think about. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it all sounds lovely, but it can’t help but seem a teeny bit like a step down in the face of some of the best stuff on this album. ‘Cos there is a lot of great stuff on this album, and if you condensed it all into one album it’d be up there with UGK’s best.

First, let’s deal with the elephant in the room. There are a lot of people on RYM who are perfectly willing to call “Int’l Players Anthem” the best song ever made, and I ain’t always willing to disagree. This is a song that really, truly transcends its sample, transforming it from a merely pretty great soul song into a bright, gleaming stretch for the heavens, eradicating any trace of flawed humanity and leaving only a brass riff that sounds as if it descended from Elysium with a chorus of angels. The first minute of this song is rather like a direct soul-injection of raw beauty and light, the beatless purity of the sample enveloping and swallowing Andre 3000 like some glittering elixir as he careens free-associatively through matters such as geography, spaceships and the moon, excitedly darting between metaphors in a way that shouldn’t hold together as beautifully as it does. His flow traces those strange rhythms only he can, stumbling about purposefully as if blinded by the light, off-kilter and gorgeously unpredictable. Never has a verse melded so perfectly with an instrumental as this one; it might be the best single minute in rap history.

The rest of the song is great too, of course, if not quite as iconic as that. DJ Paul and Juicy J have the sense to give each rapper different variations of the beat, throwing in bass and drums for Pimp C (whose abrasive verse is admittedly a little jarring after Andre’s, not that it really bothers me), looping one particularly triumphant segment for the opening of Bun’s adorable declarations of love and dropping everything but the bass and drums for substantial segments of Big Boi’s technical meanderings. That gives each verse its own particular sense of import, and transforms this from just another posse cut into one of the best rap songs ever made. UGK, Outkast and the Three 6 Mafia are three of the greatest musical groups of all time, but even I would never have expected a collaboration of theirs to end up being this good. This is a full, complete realisation of potential, and that’s a rare thing in music.

It’s exceedingly hard to follow that, of course, but Pimp C does his best. “Chrome Plated Woman” is one of only three songs on the album he produced entirely himself, and it’s one of his best productions ever. It’s one of the catchiest, funkiest and most propulsive grooves he ever came up with, and the bassline especially is one of the best in UGK’s discography. The hook, too, is just about impossible to get out of your head once you’ve heard it, as is Pimp C’s proud claim that he’s been “steady pimpin’ bitches through my website”. It’s a slice of raw, confident swagger that recalls the best moments on Super Tight, imparting just the smallest sliver of Pimp and Bun’s supreme self-belief onto the listener and thus momentarily transforming one’s world into a far wealthier, more successful and generally triller place.

Those are the best two songs on the record, for sure, but there’s still lots of great songs elsewhere. “Life Is 2009” overcomes its nonsensical title to be one of the most fun tracks on the record, with a great little popping guitar riff, a nice mirroring piano/bass motif and a memorably sleazy verse from the inimitably filthy Too $hort. “The Game Belongs To Me” has one of the most memorable hooks in UGK’s discography and a great, weirdly contrasting synth riff, as well as some of Pimp’s most charismatic proclamations of his own dominance. “They call me Mick Jagger, ‘cos I roll a lotta stooones!“, he sneers, turning what should be a lame pun into an irresistible boast by sheer force of will. “Like That (Remix)” has a sweeping, melodramatic string-based percussion that straight-up sounds like dirty, filthy money, complete with Bun B turning in his most impressively technical work since Ridin’ Dirty. Then there’s “Quit Hatin’ the South”, which has a nice descending guitar riff and a message I wholly support. The south really is the best region for hip-hop, and the sooner this myth of east coast supremacy is put to rest the better.

There’s a couple of great songs at the beginning of the second disc, too. “How Long Can It Last” is nearly seven minutes long, but it’s not at all a chore – I’d advise you to simply lie back and relax as the pleasant bravado and distant female vocal samples wash over you, assuming you aren’t moving your hips to the bass. “Still Ridin’ Dirty” is perhaps the most atmospheric song UGK ever made, with an ominously monolithic piano riff and big, expansive synths punctuated by reverby psychedelic guitar chords, sounding rather vaster than the cramped urban projects they’re rapping about. “Cocaine” is similar, complete with an amateur’s guide to the political, historical and social context of cocaine as a drug and a part of the economy courtesy of professor (as in, actual professor) Bun B, though Rick Ross’ verse does have a pretty weird and unpleasantly amateurish doubling effect that does the song no favours.

The rest of the songs here are mostly good, but not quite great, either because they just don’t have any real unique qualities (“Swishas and Doshas”, “Gravy”, “Heaven”), because they’re laden with the sorts of dated synths that seem kinda quaint in the post-trap era (“Grind Hard”, the original version of “Like That”), or because they’re “bonus tracks” (i.e they were included on the very first edition of the album, but shoved after the outro and called “bonus tracks” because they weren’t quite good enough for the main event). Of those, the version of “Int’l Players Anthem” with DJ Paul and Juicy J instead of Outkast is fun – definitely better suited to the clubs than the original – but not essential, and the chopped & screwed version is so poorly done as to be an unlistenable disgrace to the name of the late, great DJ Screw.

Let’s see – what have I missed? Ah, yes – there’s “Next Up”, which is actually pretty great, ‘cos you have two of the best East Coast rappers of the 90s on the same song as Pimp and Bun, comparing and contrasting styles as they rap over a very basic beat. It’s an intriguing exercise and certainly pretty enjoyable, though it can’t help but seem like a bit of a step down from the other major posse cut on the record. “Shattered Dreams” features Pimp C doing the unthinkable and expressing sympathy and support for everyone from prostitutes to gay men, which certainly isn’t something I expected from the man who spent the opening track of this record accusing various modern rappers of being “homosexuals on the low”. And then, finally, we have “Living This Life”, a fairly pleasant journey through the guilty consciences of our two anti-villains as they reckon with the wrong they have done in their years spent hustling. It’s kind of a rote way to close out a gangsta rap album, but it’s still a good song, not to mention sadly bittersweet considering what became of Pimp C mere months after this album’s release.

I sure hope Pimp’s enjoying his time in the great Cadillac in the sky, ‘cos he deserves to after giving us this much great music. As far as swan songs go, this would’ve been a pretty good one – a few not-so-hot tracks, but a nonetheless mostly good, often great album that contains one or two of the finest things he ever did. In the end, though, it wasn’t his swan song – there’s one more UGK album left to come, and (spoiler alert!) it’s not their best. Nonetheless, I’ll get to it as soon as I can. In the meantime, do what y’all should have been doing the last few years and blast “Int’l Players Anthem” on repeat until you reach spiritual apotheosis. You owe it to yourself.