STRAIT TO THE POINT: UGK – Dirty Money (2001)

Review by: Michael Strait

ugk

A workmanlike success, which by UGK’s standards almost feels like a failure.

UGK’s first three albums were all released within a crisp six-year period, so the five-year hibernation between Ridin’ Dirty and Dirty Money must have felt agonizing for the fans. The intervening time wasn’t completely without activity, though, and two very important things happened in the couple of years before this album was released. The first, oft-referenced in discussions of this album, was Jay-Z’s decision to feature the duo on what would become one of his most iconic hits, complete with lush, party-ready production from the then-trendy Timbaland. The second, sometimes overlooked, was the presence of Bun and Pimp on the Three-6 Mafia’s similarly iconic single Sippin’ On Some Syrup, which didn’t chart nearly as high but was nonetheless present on an album that went platinum faster than you can blink. Now, I’m not one to assume, but considering Pimp C is the man who once boasted about having a “ten thousand dollar Link medallion hangin’ on a two thousand dollar shirt”, it perhaps isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that he saw something persuasive, on some level, in these numbers. So he and Bun B set about making their first party rap album, and the results were… mmm… not as good as they’d hoped.

See, the problem is that Bun and Pimp just aren’t really cut out for party rapping. UGK’s rap style has always been mostly about the charisma, humour and storytelling, but party rap usually needs something a little different. If you wanna see how it should really be done, look no further than Juicy J and DJ Paul’s guest verses on “Like A Pimp”. Neither of them deliver any particularly memorable lines, but both of them have such precise rhythmic delivery and so much propulsive energy that the song becomes a grade-A banger regardless. Party rapping is, above all else, about the most musical aspects of rap vocals, and that just isn’t really in UGK’s wheelhouse. Pimp’s hook on the track is great, of course, and both of them deliver great verses, but in the end they’re just the wrong kind of great verses for the song, and it’s no surprise that neither it nor any of the other tracks on this album had any sort of longevity in the clubs. It exists between two worlds, a tad underwhelming on headphones and expensive soundsystems alike.

There are other problems here, too, some of them oddly specific. “Ain’t That a Bitch” has the best production on the record, turning B.B King’s “Chains and Things” (which would make a great UGK song title in itself, no?) into the rough aural equivalent of a cruise through the seedier end of a city in a gleaming cadillac, all cocky and sleazy and smooth; it’s also heavily censored on every single version of the album, reportedly because B.B. wasn’t happy with all the swearing and wouldn’t allow his song to be used otherwise. This not only deprives us of the gloriously southern way Pimp C pronounces the word “bitch” (which you can hear in the leaked uncensored version), but also makes Pimp and guest Devin the Dude’s verses near-incomprehensible and unpleasant to listen to. Bun B’s verse isn’t as curse-reliant as the others, and as such is still a delight – “I got a letter from the government the other day/ I opened and read it, it said: “F___ UGK!”” makes me chuckle just about every time – but on the whole it’s quite a depressing missed opportunity for what should have been an easy album highlight.

Don’t get me wrong: there ain’t an outright bad song on the record. “Gold Grill” is probably the closest they come, and its only real crime is that it’s just kinda dated, consisting as it does of the sorts of cheap glitzy synths that were really only in fashion for a few years in the early 00s. They’ve got a certain sleazeball charm, though, and the song is mostly perfectly fine, if a little disappointingly benign considering the guest features. That’s really the problem with the album as a whole – it’s all good, professional and well-made, and the rhythm component is almost uniformly excellent, but most of it is ultimately rather forgettable. “Choppin’ Blades” has a very catchy hook, which is good, ‘cos I usually can’t remember much else about the song when it’s over. Same goes for “Pimpin’ Ain’t No Illusion”, which does feature a pretty nice slimeball verse from Too $hort but is otherwise just another song. I’m running out of things to say here, actually – I enjoy this music just fine when I’m listening to it, but I’ll be fucked if I can recall anything specific about the tracks when they’re done.

The memorable moments here are mostly courtesy of Pimp C, who is being his usual lovably ridiculous self. He raps about sex, cars, and drugs in that way only he can, delivering each boast as if he is preaching universal truths. His very first verse on the album contains the words “Got a young brown stallion/ And she 20 years old/ When she pop it from the back/ You see that hairy asshole”, a set of lines only he could deliver as confidently as he does (though I do wonder if anyone got around to telling him what “stallion” means afterwards). Elsewhere, he proudly gloats that he “Put my dick up in her spahhn/ I done blew yo bitch mahhnd“, straining anatomical credulity in a way I’m perfectly happy to accept. Bun B, sadly, is back to a rather subordinate role on most of this album – his technical skill level decreased a tad over the five years since Ridin’ Dirty, and in terms of charisma there’s no way he can compete with, for example, the way Pimp raps “Take it off, chick, bend over, let me see it/ If you lookin’ for a trill-type figure, let me be it”. I spend most of his verses decently entertained, but not enraptured, much like with most of the guest verses here. Big Gipp, Eightball & MJG, Devin the Dude and (I guess) C-note are all good or great rappers, but they suffer from the same problem as Bun and Pimp do here: they just don’t really fit over this kind of music, and all their verses all end up sounding kinda similar, drowned under the party beats.

The last three tracks here are listed as “bonus tracks”, which makes no sense to me since 1) they came by default with the original edition of the album and 2) they aren’t noticeably different in either style or quality from the ones that preceded them. The beat on “Holdin’ Na” is kinda cool in its minimalism, being almost all rhythm and very little treble, and “PA Nigga” is composed mostly of cool synths that sound kinda like they belong in an old-school video game. Yeah… uh… I can’t really think of anything else to say about this album. I guess I’ll finish up by saying I don’t really agree with the people who knock this for lacking Ridin’ Dirty‘s introspective self-consciousness, since Super Tight (with the possible exception of “Stoned Junkee” if you’re feeling generous) didn’t have that either and was still a masterpiece. But a masterpiece this ain’t, and it’s got far more to do with UGK being straight-up out of their element than with a lack of conscious rhymes. It’s still very far from bad, of course, because UGK out of their element is still UGK, but I doubt I’ll be returning to this album very much after I publish this review. Don’t worry too much, though – there’s life in the old pimps yet, and we’ll get to it soon.

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