STRAIT TO THE POINT: UGK – Ridin’ Dirty (1996)

Review by: Michael Strait:

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Another masterwork, though a markedly different one.

I said before that Super Tight is the rare masterpiece unconcerned with being dark, deep or thought-provoking, and that was one of the reasons I loved it. It should stand to reason, then, that I’d be disappointed by Ridin’ Dirty. This is just the sort of rap album journalists love most: it’s a dark, dour and paranoid tour through the grimy, poorly-lit streets most Americans like to pretend don’t exist, with lots of poignant lyrics about mortality, futility and fear. Indeed, unlike the prior effort it’s primarily lyric-focused, with the production this time taking a backseat in order to give the duo room. It’s no wonder that it’s by far the most-rated UGK album on RYM, and part of me kinda wants to complain about that. But the fact of the matter is that this album really deserves all the praise it’s ever received. It’s one of the best albums ever made, and if I had to pick a UGK album to tout as their masterpiece this one would probably (just barely) edge out Super Tight. Nineties hip-hop was without question one of the greatest eras of the popular music age, and this right here is the best of the best.

If it has a flaw, it’s a fairly traditional one: it’s definitely a little frontloaded, and there’s a steady – if gradual and not perfectly consistent – trend downwards in quality from the first song to the last. The title track is the only song on the album that I consistently can’t recall much about without listening to it again, and the immediately preceding “Good Stuff” is definitely one of the album’s weakest cuts. The hook is still catchy and the rapping is still stellar, but on an album this good my expectations are higher than that. It’d be a highlight on most albums, but here? Well, let’s just look at some of the competition, shall we?

“One Day” is the opener (not counting that intro, of course), and it’s one of the best songs ever made. It owes a lot to the Isley Brothers’ original, but it’s a different sort of masterpiece, far simpler and heftier in its emotional impact. Ronnie Spencer transforms the wryly regretful remarks from the original into a soft wail of despair and quiet mortal terror, and 3-2’s opening couplet remains, for me, one of the most instantly memorable and desperately sad moments in rap history. “Mama put me out at only fourteen/ so I started selling crack cocaine and codeine,” he says, totally matter-of-fact and free from any embellishment. Bun B and Pimp C spend most of their verses waxing beautifully lyrical about the same horror, and Pimp C’s verse in particular is absolutely gorgeous – “AK loader as I get swallowed under city lights” might be some of my favourite rap imagery ever – but nothing they spit really matches the raw impact of that couplet. Bun B really does try, though: “I remember being eight deep off in Chucky crib/ Lettin’ us act bad, not givin’ a fuck what we did/ When we lost him, I knew the world was comin’ to the end/ And I had to quit lettin’ the Devil push me to a sin.”

Of course, he never does get round to quitting that; he’s pulled back into the same old brutality by the next song. I used to struggle with “One Day”‘s presence on this album, unable to reconcile its bleak regret with the proud evil that followed, but after a while I realized you couldn’t have the one without the other; the various evil deeds and brutal tales that follow draw their power from what “One Day” tells us about their inevitable conclusion. Musically it’s gorgeous, of course; the Isley Brothers were geniuses, and Pimp C’s deft little finishing touches – the barely-audible, possibly synthesised backing vocals mimicking the chord progression; the characteristically excellent drum patterns – are lovely. But the real meat of the song is in the pall of gloom it throws over all the accomplishments and victories the two of them detail over the rest of the album, and the air of crushing mortal inevitability it bestows upon all their most violent boasts. What goes around comes around; one who lives by the gun must die by the gun. There is no happy ending to this story.

The album as a whole is way more minor key and downbeat than the last one. Super Tight was exuberant and maximalist, but this is reserved and minimalist, and even the most whimsical stuff on here wouldn’t fit on the former album. “Fuck My Car” is the silliest song on the album and perhaps the only one free from any trace of existential dread, but the instrumental is positively dour and refined next to the great big brass bands of Super Tight. The bass riff is the only real motif here, and it’s not really drawing attention to itself; instead, it’s content to lounge about in the back, allowing a whole array of minimal production details to fill the song out. There’s the occasional piano stab, some brief slices of psychedelic guitar, and the occasional fog of synth strings hovering about at the edge; the whole thing is definitely funky and energetic, but it stops just short of being outright fun. Evidently Pimp wasn’t as comfortable with this production style as he was with his earlier maximalism, ‘cos more than half the tracks here (excluding the intro and outro) are produced by other people, and “Fuck My Car” is one.

So is “3 in the Mornin'”, which may just be my favourite instrumental work in UGK’s discography. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a song more perfectly capture the essence of its title, actually – that slow, distant, booming bass, those bare textural guitars, that barely-noticeable piano note and that soft percussion all add up to a song that very much distills the essence of sitting in a tranquil daze deep in the night. The hook fits in perfectly, drifting ephemerally across the beat like a lazy fog, daring you to take notice of how faintly unsettled it sounds. This is just about the only cut on the album that’s really, definitively more about the music than the rapping, so much so that I didn’t even notice the guest feature on this track until about my fifth listen or so. The verses are great, I guess, but it’s difficult to pay attention when the instruments are painting such a vivid atmosphere.

“Murder”, meanwhile, is the opposite. The song is primarily built around a simple, metronomic keyboard riff, and while it’s backed up with Pimp C’s usual little production details (what sounds like some sort of distant vocal riot, a whistle sample, a deftly-placed record scratch) the song really exists as a showcase for what might be the best verses in either of their careers. The general consensus seems to be that Bun B’s verse is better, and it’s certainly some of the most impressive rhyming I’ve ever heard in my life. “Now I done ripped out my Barrelli/ Flyin’ through yo Pelle Pelle and/ Some smelly red jelly is drippin’ out of ya belly/ Servin’ ’em like a Deli, jumped on my cellular telli” is probably the best moment, but the whole verse is nothing but endlessly shifting multisyllabic rhymes, and it’s always faintly astonishing to listen to. But as great as it is, the UGK lines I see people quoting most often elsewhere are always from Pimp C’s verse here: “If I told ya cocaine numbers, you would think I was lyin’/ Young niggas 22, is talkin’ bout they retirin'”, or, of course, the immortal “I’m still Pimp C, bitch, so what the fuck is up?/ Puttin’ powder on the street, ‘cos I got big fuckin’ nuts!” That was always Pimp’s gift; he could never match Bun B for technical proficiency, but he had an innate talent for writing great and instantly memorable quotables, and this song is full of them. “South Texas, motherfucker, that’s where I stay/ Gettin’ money from yo bitches every goddamn day!”

It’s one of many boasts that hangs under the shadow of “One Day”, sounding more paranoid and insecure than it otherwise would. “Diamonds & Wood” is full of those, too. It’s one of the smoothest grooves in the group’s discography, with lovely guitar licks and a bassline lifted from another classic funk masterpiece, and at first Pimp’s lyrics seem like the usual set of bellicose gloating one would expect over such luxury. Pay closer attention, however, and one notices that the posture is much more defensive than usual. “I flip down the Ave., you know I’m looking tight/ These jealous niggas looking at me and my car so shife/ Wanna take my life, and wanna jack, but I see all through that/ Never let these bitch niggas take what’s mine, nigga, never do that.” The usual narratives about jealousy and success are undercut with a paranoid sense of constant vulnerability, and suddenly Pimp’s triumphal posturing doesn’t seem quite as fun as it used to. His final verse dips into the sort of self-medicating depression that wouldn’t become normal in street rap for another twenty years or so: “I see the jealousy and hating, and the wicked ways/ We all lost children, praisin’ paper, smoking our life away/ Got to the point where I could not decipher day from night/ She say she love me, but all we do now is fuck and fight.” He calls it “The other side of selling dope, and out there running the streets”, but one starts to wonder whether he really believes it’s worth it. After all, what’s the point of all these material gains if they come with enough paranoia and guilt to keep you from enjoying them?

That paranoia runs through and taints almost everything here. Even “Pinky Ring”, with its silly (if very catchy) chorus about “fly women and fancy thangs”, trades in paranoia and mistrust of the mostly misogynistic kind, although Bun B brings in some traditional drug-dealer paranoia (“Mashin’ from the scene, almost crashin’, flashin’/ Cop lights keep a playa dashin'”) to flesh the scene out a little. “That’s Why I Carry” is, of course, far more explicit, with its squealing whistle-synth, worried piano chords, otherworldly synths and ghostly vocal samples underlying some real viciousness. Bun B is the villain of the narrative here, but he’s very well aware of how quickly the tables could turn. “Jackers in the dark alley waited on/ The fool comin’ out the gamblin’ shack/ Pistol to his back, took 4 ounces of crack, and a fat doja sack”, he says, almost perfectly mirroring the deed he described himself doing earlier in the same verse.

That’s nothing, though, compared to the brutalities and monstrosities described in “Touched”. There’s a great bassline and lovely, minimally-applied organs, but the meat of the song is in Bun B and Pimp C descending to the lowest levels of villainy they have yet traversed. “Bitch, your old man talkin’ to me like I’m in school/ He don’t know I hang with killers, we’ll erase that fool/ Wouldn’t give a fuck about him, but he came to my son/ If you think that I’m that nigga, then you picked the wrong one”, says Pimp, reminding me of a particularly tragic scene in The Wire. This is the one time it’s impossible to find Pimp’s villainy fun or entertaining; he’s just being a real, total asshole, having abandoned any respect for his elders and any moral centre he may once have had, fully embracing the most sordid end of human nature and wallowing angrily in it. The song is most famous for Bun B’s opening lines (oft-quoted, including by Jay-Z), but it’s Pimp C’s raging maliciousness that always gets me about this song. “Nigga I’m hangin’ out the truck, b-buck buck/ Hit your nigga in the leg, hit your bitch in the gut”, he sneers, having already killed the man to whom he’s referring and now killing his loved ones for what appears to be no reason. It’s a rather sobering reminder that, for lots of people on the streets, this sort of villainy isn’t the fun diversion it is for us listeners; there are people who must daily navigate the environments in which these predators roam, and it’s not a joke to them.

It’s an unusually low moment for either of them, and it seems that they aren’t completely free from any wounds on their conscience. Pimp C spends most of “Hi Life” ruminating on what a dismal mistake it was to get himself stuck in this world. “What ya want me to do?”, he asks at one point, apropos of nothing; “It’s like somebody cut my throat.” It’s not clear exactly what he’s referring to, but considering the general horror, terror, paranoia and mortality he’s been telling us about all across the album, I think I can guess the general gist. “Hi Life” is a great song in general, with its wonderful backing vocals, restrained guitars and sadly ironic hook, but I do think it could probably have been placed better in the album. It tracks closely enough with “One Day”‘s themes that it’d make a great penultimate track, closing the album out on a sort of emotional bookend. As it stands, the album effectively ends with the aforementioned title track before fading out with a lovely nine-minute instrumental jam by Pimp’s band, drowning the album’s horrors in a sea of relaxed, smoky barroom vibes as Pimp lays back and gives some recognition to his fellow Southern rappers. UGK were never very good at album closers, but in the absence of a proper one this will certainly do. Besides, it gives one space to think about the implications of the record one just listened to.

There is, after all, a lot to think about here. That’s why the journalists love this album so much, see, and alas, it’s why I love it too. I’m generally opposed to outright conscious hip-hop, but albums like this are more my speed. UGK never condescend to me on this record, and they certainly never preach; they just tell stories about the places they came from, boast about their successes and happily relay tales of murdering and brutalizing their enemies, and they let the listener come to their own conclusions about what it all means. That, to me, will always be the point of the best gangsta rap: it tells the story of the streets from the perspective of the villains, making it clear that there are no heroes in the picture and inviting you to picture yourself as one of the innocent civilians victimized in the lyrics. If Super Tight was an album about having a great time being a very bad human being, then this is an album about having a downright terrible time being a monster, yet finding oneself trapped and being unable to extricate oneself from steadily worsening moral degradation. That’s far from UGK’s usual style, so it’s almost a shame that this ended up being their most acclaimed album, but what can I say? A masterpiece is a masterpiece, and UGK brought this fate upon themselves by making one of the best albums in hip-hop history.

This is, in fact, the second time in a row they’ve done that, which is pretty much astonishing. Hip-hop isn’t a genre that tends to value consistency, but UGK beat the odds and made two effortless masterpieces in a row. This, sadly, is the end of their peak; there aren’t any more best-album-ever contenders in their discography from here on out, though there’s still a lot of good music to cover and I’ll enjoy doing it over the next few weeks. In the meantime, do yourself a favour and listen to this album repeatedly. It belongs in anyone’s library.

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STRAIT TO THE POINT: UGK – Too Hard To Swallow (1992)

I wish I was in dixie, hooray, hooray…

Review by: Michael Strait:

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I wish I was in dixie, hooray, hooray…

In general, great rappers and rap groups follow a different trajectory to great rock bands. The latter – before the turn of the millennium, at least – usually began with a few promising EPs, got started in earnest with an endearingly amateurish debut album, spiralled off in all sorts of lovely artistic directions for ten-to-twenty years and then finally spent the last ten-to-infinite years of their careers churning out utter garbage to pay the bills. The rappers, meanwhile, usually start their career with a mindblowing, undeniably brilliant debut album, occasionally manage one or two good-to-great followups, and usually spend the rest of their careers spiralling downwards into an infinitely dark pit of artistic debasement and (if they’re lucky) celebrity drama.

UGK were a rare thing: they were a great rap group that behaved rather more like a great rock group. After a couple of portentously brilliant (and HIGHLY juvenile) EPs, the underbudgeted, underpromoted and underappreciated debut album came along right on schedule. Armed with almost nothing but a few drum machines, a whole lot of charisma and a few no-name sound engineers, the best duo in rap history embarked on a quest that would end up casting a sonic shadow the South still dances under to this day. The idea of the South as a distinct force within the rigid geographic genre system of hip-hop existed only spottily, and certainly far below the mainstream, before this album; these days, the omnipresent South has handily conquered the entire East Coast and Midwest, bending them backwards into the sonic paradigm you can ultimately trace right back here, to Pimp C.

Pimp C, man! I fucking love Pimp C. One of the most talented men ever to inhabit the world of hip-hop, for real. Rappers pretend that they live and die by the words they spit, but what really makes or breaks a rapper is charisma, and on that front nobody will ever best Pimp C. Even here, not yet twenty years old, he’s brimming with a magnetic bravado that is absolutely delightful and completely impossible to ignore. “Cocaine in the Back of the Ride” isn’t one of the best songs on the album (which is saying a lot, really, ‘cos it’d be a highlight on many albums), but it’s made mesmerizing by the unstoppable force of his sheer self-belief, and the tangible delight he projects whenever he’s on the mic always brings the biggest grin to my face. The lines “Got more dope than a pharmacy, ho/ Got a job for the city, bitch, I’m shoveling snow” don’t look particularly special on paper, but he delivers them as if they are irresistible proof of his own utter supremacy over everyone else in the human race, and I’m having so much fun that I feel like agreeing. Bun B gets some funny lines on the song, too – “Little kids on the corner, steady grabbin they nuts/ Sayin, ‘I wish I was Bun when I grow the fuck up!'” – but on the whole, the song belongs to Pimp C, and it’s mostly the same story with the record as a whole.

But I’m getting sidetracked. Pimp C’s rapping on this album is absolutely wonderful, but it wasn’t what I was talking about earlier. The influence of Pimp C’s delivery-over-lyrics rapping style on later generations of Southern rappers can’t be overstated, but his production style is what really made the South what it has been ever since. His drum programming, for one, was already head-and-shoulders above what most producers from the other two regions were doing at the time, and presaged the way Southern producers would mess around with all sorts of intricate drum patterns in later years. His drums on “Short Texas” wash and willow around the sampled Funkadelic beat like they’re made of some sort of liquid, more texture than percussion, melting away for much of the song only to reappear when most impactful. The drums on “Use Me Up” are mostly just a recreation of the original, but the sounds he’s found are deeply satisfying, and the little dots of synthetic vibraslap are a lovely addition. Both these songs are generally really great – the former in particular has this awesome siren sample that pushes it to real great heights – but the real standout on the first half is the eternal classic “Pocket Full of Stones”.

“Pocket Full of Stones” is, for real, one of the best straight hip-hop songs ever made, and it’d make this an essential album even if the rest was mediocre (which it isn’t). That laid-back, subtly intricate drum pattern is one of the best on the album, and the sample usage is some of the best in the world. Just listen to the downbeat peal of the saxophone in the chorus; it’s gorgeous, and all the more impressive considering that it used to be the triumphal opening to a whimsical LL Cool J song. The minimal bass & keyboard samples give the whole thing an underlying atmosphere of reserved cool, but there’s just a hint of distant paranoia in there, too. That’s an excellent context for the story the two of them are so vividly telling on top of it, which is as full of memorable, funny lines – “fuck black Caesar, niggas call me black Trump!” – as it is of substance. The first two verses are, of course, absolutely iconic, but the pair keep my attention through the whole thing, encapsulating the appeal of gangsta rap so perfectly that they just about render the rest of it redundant. The six minutes never feels too long; if anything, it sometimes doesn’t feel long enough. That effortlessly cool, atmospheric groove is something I could get lost in forever, especially if Bun B and Pimp C are providing narration.

The other big highlight on this record is “Feel Like I’m The One Who’s Doin’ Dope”, on which Bun B isn’t present at all. One might, therefore, expect it to be a whimsical pile of charismatic jokes and hilarious one-liners, like the immediately following “I’m So Bad” (which is mostly about autofellatio, although it’s probably metaphorical). One would, however, be very wrong: this is one of the most harrowing hip-hop narratives ever rapped, and the fact that it’s all eventually revealed to be a dream somehow doesn’t do much to dampen the impact. Pimp C spends a lot of time in his lyrics portraying himself as a remorseless killer, but it’s rare that he examines the consequences of the life he lives in as much detail as he does here. He inches over into horrorcore territory on the second verse – ejaculating upon the corpse of the woman you’ve just raped and murdered is some real Lord Infamous shit – but its placement in the escalating tragic-villainous narrative makes it more impactful than even the darkest rap that ever wafted out from the dungeons of Memphis. The squelchy bass keys – played by Pimp himself – are a nicely filthy finishing touch.

There ain’t a bad song on here, actually. Bun B wasn’t at his best yet, so his solo tracks are perhaps the least memorable of the bunch, but they’re still immaculately produced – particularly “976-Bun B”, which has the best bassline on the album and one of those gorgeous sampled female wails of the kind you usually find in UK Garage. “Cramping My Style” is of a piece with Ice Cube’s “It’s a Man’s World”, featuring a female rapper trading combative verses with Bun B; it’s not a career highlight, but it’s amusing and pleasant while it lasts, and the soul sample is lovely. “It’s Too Hard To Swallow” is just a great slice of classic gangsta rap boasting over a perfectly laid-back, chill instrumental section that sounds like it was borrowed right out of a 70s soul track, even though – according to the liner notes – there aren’t actually any samples on this track at all. And then there’s the opener, which features what TVtropes might call Pimp C’s Establishing Character Moment: “I didn’t do ya girl but your sister was alright/ Took her to my homeboy’s caddy last night/ […] Now everybody in the world/ Know that your sister is a nasty little girl!”. His mocking goblin grin is audible, and the bassline that falls in behind him as he delivers it pushes it to a level of amusing catharsis that really shouldn’t be possible with such a juvenile sex boast. The remix of it that ends the album is a bit of an anticlimactic way to close out, but it’s a good remix; it’s all druggy and psychedelic, and it just sounds so trill, like it’s made from some sort of otherworldly gold.

Of course, UGK would only get more trill from here on out, but this album is nonetheless excellent on its own terms. No hip-hop collection is complete without it, I’d say, especially if you – like me – accept the obvious supremacy of Southern hip-hop over all other forms. We’re dealing with a top-tier group here, folks, and even their shaky, amateurish debut is head-and-shoulders above most of the music in the world.

STRAIT TO THE POINT: UGK – Super Tight… (1994)

Review by: Michael Strait

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Simple, homemade goodness. An unassuming masterwork.

Wikipedia tells me Too Hard To Swallow has sold a total of 370,000 copies since release. I’ve no way of knowing when all those sales took place or how much money the duo made from each one, but it’s clear something had changed by the time they released Super Tight. Whatever money they made from their debut wasn’t wasted; the production is clearer and brighter, the live band fuller and more skilled, and the samples rarer this time around. Pimp C finally had the means to match his talent, and he promptly set about creating the sorts of lush, rich and detailed arrangements that would make his soul and funk idols proud. The end result is an album that feels rather like bathing in a room made mostly of gold, perhaps adorned with diamonds, while sipping some expensive liquor; it’s luxurious, and profoundly fun to listen to.

It helps that both of them were, by this point, exceptional rappers. I think I still prefer Pimp C – his charisma is still just irresistible – but Bun B’s early clunkiness is mostly gone by now, and his technical skills are really starting to take off. “I Left It Wet for You” is excellent in just about every regard – the smugly rising bassline; the mocking, whispered chorus; the refined, tasteful percussion – but the exuberance of Bun B’s rhyming in the final verse is probably the highlight. It’s the sound of a man who is utterly, shamelessly aware of his superiority, showing it off not because he’s insecure but because he just finds it fun to do so. He’s not yet at his peak – that’d come next album – but he is nonetheless great all across the album. Though I gotta say, man – “suckin’ dick while I’m takin’ shits”? Really, dude? That’s disgusting.

I’m not actually entirely sure which song I’d nominate as the best on here, because they’re all almost equally excellent. “It’s Supposed to Bubble” – one of the few wholly sample-based songs on the record, though you wouldn’t be able to tell at first blush – might be it; it’s probably one of my favourite hip-hop songs ever made, and definitely one of the happiest, most pleasant songs in my library. It’s just the sort of warm, sunlit, pleasantly happy hip-hop I could never imagine coming from anywhere else in the country in the 90s, even if Pimp C’s declaration that he “don’t fuck around no more with that gahd damn drank” is a little sad in hindsight. The lead-in to the chorus is perfect, and Bun B’s contentedly meaningless repetition of “it just be like that sometimes” is just the sort of thing that sticks in one’s head forever. One could, maybe, pick hairs about the morality of creating such a pleasantly summery song about the benefits of getting rich off of violent drug deals, but hey – at least they aren’t rapping about “fuckin’ a bitch while her baby’s suckin’ dick” anymore, right?

“Pocket Full of Stones, Pt. 2” is also on the shortlist for favourites. If the original was a reserved, slightly paranoid tour through the urban Texas streets, this one is an exuberant romp right across them, with bouncy funk organs and impeccable basslines providing the foundation for Pimp and Bun’s celebratory braggadocio. Pimp, in particular, is absolutely undeniable right from the beginning; he is so clearly and so obviously having so much fun dealing drugs that it becomes kinda funny to listen to him insist that he “don’t wanna do it, but a nigga gotta eat”. His attention to detail as a producer is similarly excellent – the wordless, possibly sampled (or perhaps simply synthesised) male background vocals that repeat regularly throughout the track are difficult to notice at first, but they serve the essential purpose of filling the song out just that little bit more, pushing it from merely luxurious to gloriously decadent. Speaking of which: those horns that come in on the chorus, heralding Pimp C’s pocket full of stones as if they made him emperor of the universe… oh man, I love this song.

Man, I keep wondering which song I should talk about next – they’re all so good. How about “Pussy Got Me Dizzy”? It takes a shitton of charisma to rap the words “I got some high school pussy, and you know it’s the lick/ ‘Cos every day, after school, she be ridin’ my dick” and make me like it, but Pimp C can pull it off. He is endlessly capable of making the worst, most reprehensible sort of villainy sound incredibly fun, and the big squelchy bass synths running under his verse certainly help. The horns in the chorus do, indeed, sound properly dizzy, as does the the little whiny whistle-synth that spirals tauntingly around them. Bun B’s verse is, as usual when he raps about sex, absolutely hilarious and completely disgusting, so I won’t quote any of it here, although I will say that I very much hope it wasn’t based on too many real life experiences. The final guest verse seems a tad forgettable after the duo’s verses, but you really shouldn’t hold that against it – it’s not 3-2’s fault his friends happen to be two of the most memorable rappers of all time.

Then there’s “Stoned Junkee”, the longest song on the album and for sure one of the best. A bassline that climbs for the sun, clawing its way out of the muck, as the organs collapse atop it; a pounding, lazy drumbeat, echoey and huge; a distant guitar, soloing away into space like some Funkadelic odyssey; and, above all, Bun B and Pimp C, painstakingly painting their sordid pictures of life under the needle. And then there’s “Protect & Serve”, one of the best anti-police polemics in rap’s long and storied history of them, eclipsing the NWA song it samples in both raw rage and musical mastery. The conflicting piano & synth riffs complement each other perfectly in their contrast, and the bass synths are as satisfying as usual. How about “Feds In Town”, with its glittery, glowing synths and perfect bassline – and those perfect little samples, one of some distant car horns and one of a fuzzy record scratch, that make the whole thing feel so much more complete? Or how about “Underground”, which has one of the catchiest and most iconic hooks the duo ever made, not to mention one of Pimp C’s most irresistible grooves?

Like I said – it’s all brilliant. The intro, “Return”, is among my favourite opening tracks in hip-hop history, making the duo’s philosophy clear right away and containing one of Bun B’s most entertaining verses. “Niggas steady catchin lead to the head, I never aim for the chest/ Muthafuckas sportin bulletproof vests!” he exclaims, with an air of something resembling grievance at the sheer audacity of these motherfuckers to dare take precautions against being killed by vengeful rappers. It’s great, as is “Front, Back and Side to Side”, which I occasionally misremember as boring because it’s ever-so-slightly weaker than its immediately surrounding tracks. But it’s the absolute opposite of boring, with that lovely textural ostinato popping through the verses and that immaculately smooth instrumental arrangement. If I have a complaint with this record, it’s that the closer, while great, isn’t one of the absolute best tracks on the album, and is perhaps a kind of anticlimactic way to close out such a stupendously good record. Still, the sample is great, the descending piano riff is possibly greater, and Bun B’s threats to rip out my spine are just priceless.

I’m always very happy to discover a masterpiece that’s neither a tour through the mind of a depressed, mentally unstable genius nor a great big artistic statement designed to be fawned over by the music press. This is an album about having a damn good time being a very bad human being, and it just so happens that it’s one of the best albums ever made. This level of consistent quality is a seriously rare thing, and the fact that it’s not the last time UGK would pull it off is what makes them one of the best groups that have ever put music to wax. If anything, I’m almost dreading reviewing their next album, ‘cos it’s just as good as this one and I’m just gonna feel straight-up weird having nothing bad to say about an album two weeks in a row. First world problems, right?

ALEX ALEX’S COLUMN: MATT ELLIOTT – Failing Songs (2007)

Review by: Alex Alex

The modern music industry, a hardest and a cruelest competition, much resembling the modern sports is not, however, openly presented as such. Had it been, then Matt Elliott, an English musician, singer-songwriter, and whatever else those sportsmen in disguise are labeled, could well have been questioned by some music anti-doping agency on the ways he obtains his astonishingly depressing, as well as suspiciously crazy, results.

Music business still masking itself as a creative activity, the sportsmen-artists are allowed any legal technique as long as it’s masked as illegal. Nick Cave used to come to the arena in a black suite and a white shirt, the raven wing color hair being all natural and the stories about his past as a punk or who those guys are – all very strange but absolutely comprehensible narrative. Hell, one could even present the proof of rationality post factum – surely Joy Division had some rights to do what they did – in cinemas and theaters you pay before you see the show but, well, there are many business places where you are supposed to pay after.

So, the anti-doping committee would then proceed with checking the rationale behind the Matt Eliott album “Failing Songs” (which has come immediately after his previous one called “Drinking Songs” on the record label “Ici d’Ailleurs”). Immediately the suspicions would arise. “Drinking Songs”, “Failing Songs” – those titles seem to be almost mirror opposites to, say, “Murder Ballads” or all those freaky titles of the black metal albums – surely there must be some drugs hidden in the sugarcubes? And what the hell does “Ici d’Ailleurs” mean if it doesn’t hint that these songs are not really that suitable for drinking?

But then, surely, “Failing Songs” is a collection of protest songs inspired by “the current political climate in Great Britain” as Wikipedia says? Surely “we’re free to do exactly what we’re told, we’re free to buy what we’re sold” is that type of lyrics which would allow “the times they are a-changing” chorus? Can the album be allowed to participate in the competition then?

Oh, wait there’s another song which starts with “When people ask me I always say/The targeted assassination is the only way”.. The protest seems now to be not that constructive – people can become worried a bit. Ah, wait! It must be a loud aggressive song because, of course, the political climate in Great Britain is that of the Queen being the head of the fascist regime a scientist turning into a fly – and all this will eventually be revealed in the happy-ending kawaii KISS masks kabuki show and the kids leaving the circus happily?

Hell, no. The “Planting Seeds” song is a very sad, very melancholy and there’s not a hint of that shameful positivity of the artistic protest in it. “Assassinate a corporate billionaire or their heirs” does not sound satirically (neither self-satirically) nor punkish – it does not even sound decadent, Lou Reedish or how – it sounds tired. And when the singing is over there’s the music and it’s very calm and it sounds crazy.

So what if the spectre of Communism, haunting Europe – is first and foremost a spectre? What if the spectral nature of it is much more important than the Communist programme the spectre happens to read. After all, The Third Eye Foundation, the previous project of Matt Elliott, does have an album named “Ghost” – of course, it’s very different from “Failing Songs”, purely instrumental, much less listenable but all the craziness is in there. In what sense does the spectre of Communism haunt Europe then? Surely we know what we protest for when but do we know what we protest against? Is our dissatisfaction with the existing conditions, in fact, a dissatisfaction with the existence itself? Are we protesting or are we just crazy? In that sense are we not always Ici d’ailleurs?

Well, anyway, for the anti-doping committee it will be absolutely clear that Mat Elliott shall not be allowed to participate in the competition. Indeed, no one can run so fast that “the future that we had is now the past” – this would mean exceeding the speed of light. No human artist, no matter what the circumstances are, can do that and what kind of formula should one discover to achieve that?

I think this is exactly the question we should ask ousrselves when listening to any of Matt Elliott works.

CHARLY’S ROCK COLUMN: PAUL WELLER – A Kind Revolution (2017)

Review by: Charly Saenz

It’s 2017 and we have Paul Weller’s new album? Come on, Let’s hear it for the Modfather!

This is a cool launch: “Woo Se Mama” is the great single and album opener, soulful, explosive. P.P. Arnold and Madeline Bell collaborate in the effervescent backing vocals, no less!

“Nova” continues on a rocking note, adding some quality horns here and there. And the guitar! Paul is playing some nice licks all over the album. But the echoey, dreamy voices are the best here. Subtle Psychedelia touches galore, brushes of Bowie, a refreshing adventure thru and thru.

“Long Long Road” is a masterful, classic ballad. Man, it’s been a long time since I heard a great ballad like this. There’s not much to say about it, you just gotta listen to it.

“She Moves With The Fayre” is more jazzy, but the guitar sound sticks around and leads. I like this approach. Paul’s playing is melodic and engaging, and thus we avoid the choon to become a Style Council leftover. Also, Robert Wyatt collaborate here with trumpets (including a solo) and vocals! Cool!.

“The Cranes Are Back” is led by a buzzing bass, nice backing vocals, and a softer, loungy atmosphere, reminding us of past Weller albums like Wild Wood. “Hopper” has a magnificent melody (the main hook is irresistible), some nice organ work, more “big band” horns and acoustic guitars.. And that laid back feeling of Paul finally coming to terms with life:

“I’m sat in a corner
I’ve merged with the wall
Become part of the painting
No point fighting it all
I’m quite relaxed
It’s fine with me…”

“New York” has a great Hair style! (No. Not a hairdo, but Hair, the movie). A fantastic love song (a Life Love Song too). The organ work is once more impressive but that rocking guitar never disappears, even crunching in the background at the end.

“One Tear”, once more started by a serious bass.. is an electronic, funky affair, to remind us that Weller will never stop trying “something else” and trying new toys and ideas. After the brief introduction there’s a clean, strong beat. You can’t help but dance to it, young kid. Get on your feet and do it.. The electronic pulse is in the background but it merges with a more classic structure. Paul’s gruffy voice is put to test, but God it delivers. An infectious dancing number. Guess who’s the guest here? Boy George on vocals!

“Satellite Kid” is another rocking number which functions as Weller’s statement as he approaches his 60 years on earth:

“Don’t count me out
Don’t you dismiss me
My medicines strong
Whatcha gonna do without me”

“The Impossible Idea” is a sort of waltz that manages to end up the album in a singalong mode. I can picture myself singing, love-drunk or just wine-drunk:

“I like hanging around
Til I switch on
The impossible idea
That Love might
Change the world
Maybe I’ll come to the conclusion
Until I can change myself
And there I’ll fall”

There’s a pretty accordion somewhere that paints a nice detail.. A beautiful ending to my favourite album.. in a long time. This is Paul Weller finding his old best self, stepping out of unlimited innovation and using his melodic wits for the best cause. A solid 9 but just because. It could easily be a 10.

 

CHARLY’S ROCK COLUMN: KISS – Rock and Roll Over (1976)

Review by: Charly Saenz

“I Want You” is one of those classic Kiss stadium pleasers. And it pleases me to no end, the slow part, the fast part. It works, it’s pure Stanley. “Take Me” is direct crunching hard rock, with that hiccup chorus and echo voices. Another Stanley rocker, this time with a quite involved solo by Ace.

Gene brings his super classic “Callin’ Dr Love” to the party. The key though, are the background vocals, most surely Paul & Ace but also some wicked “hidden” vocals, which I bet are provided by Gene. Ace really shines here, boy. “Ladies Room” is one of those pure rock and roll Kiss songs, not much to say, but it’s a good one. “Baby Driver”, composed and sung by Peter Criss, in his usual funky style, it’s a nice different touch to close Side A. Did I tell you I’m listening to this on cassette? As it should be!

Well, Side B is a different affair for me. “Love’em, Leave’em” is the quintessential repetitive hard rock song with a nasty chorus; only Ace does something to save this mess, fortunately it ain’t too long. “Mr Speed” is even more forgettable. “See You In Your Dreams” is insufferable, Gene, please don’t dream about me. And I won’t even mention “Makin’ Love”. Oh I did: Hell’s Bloody Bells. Well, to be honest, Ace shines in the solo, but listening to Paul’s continuous plea for sex gives me a headache. What an irony.

But you get “Hard Luck Woman” too! a precious ballad by Paul, sung by Peter’s raspy voice (heck it was meant to be sung by Rod Stewart. That makes sense). In my heart it’s a much better song than “Beth”. It made it to the Top 20 but didn’t get that much love out of the circle except in old rusty Classic Rock radios.

I guess this is a usually forgotten album – but Side A and that classic in Side B are quite good! And the Argentina bloody cover is cool! Well – You make the best of what’s still around, you know.