STRAIT TO THE POINT: Patsy Cline – Sentimentally Yours (1962)

Review By: Michael Strait


The last in a short line. Still lovely, though not really any more or less so than the other ones.

Three four-star records in a row, eh? On the one hand, the consistency is remarkable, but on the other hand I can’t help but wonder if she ever had it in her to achieve a real masterpiece. Alas, I guess we’ll never know – the plane crash in ’63 put paid to that. Wikipedia tells me the church bell in her hometown still rings out a hymn every day at 6pm in her memory, which I’m sure she’d appreciate. Still, best not to dwell on such mortal matters of flesh and blood – the music lives on regardless, and there ain’t a blemish on it.

I’ll confess, though, that the first half of this album had me worried I wouldn’t have much to write about. The songs are all good, but for the most part they’re just, y’know, Patsy Cline songs: slow, sparse, atmospheric, nocturnal, tragic and beautiful, lovely to listen to and almost impossible to write about individually. “She’s Got You”, “That’s My Desire” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” – a Hank Williams cover, though actually most of these songs are technically covers – are all perfectly gorgeous and, really, perfectly identical, save perhaps for a nice little mini-crescendo near the end of the latter. “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want To Do It)”, meanwhile, is distinguished only by the particularly heartbroken inflection she puts on the words “give me, give me, give me what I c-ry fooor”, her voice cracking as she begs.

It’s remarkable, actually, how much of Patsy Cline’s music is about not just misery, but the loss of all dignity and internal strength; it’s music about suffering emotional wounds so deep that they scar you forever, and every song carries with it the assumption that no happy ending is anywhere in sight. You can hear it on “Strange”, too, with its circling guitars and dolefully placid vocal melody underlying lyrics about a profound level of powerlessness. “Strange you’re still in all my dreams/ Oh, what a funny thing/ I still care for you”, she proclaims to her unfaithful erstwhile lover, still trapped in his memory, permanently rent in two by his betrayal.

She sounds similarly wounded on “You Were Only Fooling (While I Was Falling In Love)”, a song which also serves to remind me how truly tragic it is that pop music has largely forgotten how to tastefully apply the string section. The strings here are part of the tapestry, a central but minimally-applied component to the atmosphere, adding just the right amount of extra smoothness to the gleaming little globe of perfectly-polished sorrow from which Patsy croons her heart out. When did string sections in pop music become irretrievably associated with schmaltz and melodrama? There’s so much more you can do with a few carefully-applied violins than bury your singer in sap. Alas, it’s an art we seem to have buried next to dear Patsy.

I wish she’d done a few more faster numbers in her career, ‘cos the ones on here are both great and unique. “Heartaches” sounds remarkably propulsive for such a sparse song; its rhythm is derived only from a walking swingy bassline and a lilting guitar skank, with the drums almost nonpresent in their quiet minimalism, and yet it still sounds perfectly danceable without giving up that heavenglow charm I associate with Patsy. “Anytime” performs a similar trick, adding lovely little wind instrument flourishes and a string section that melds so perfectly to the choir that they fuse into one glowing instrument. All rather gorgeous, and the sort of music I’d have loved to see her explore more. Oh, alas, if it hadn’t been for that plane crash…

There are a lot of questions about Patsy’s career that crash left forever unanswered. Would she ever have come into her own as a songwriter, rather than simply a singer of other people’s songs? Was there potential in her to grow from merely a great lamenter of heartbreak to an exploratory, boundary-pushing artist, or would she have remained in a comfort zone of steadily diminishing returns for the rest of her life? It’s impossible to answer those questions now, of course, but at least she’s left us with some lovely music to relax to if the mood ever takes us. Now, what next? Another woman, that’s for sure – gotta counteract that UGK misogyny somehow. Stay tuned, I s’pose…


STRAIT TO THE POINT: Patsy Cline – Showcase (1961)

Review by: Michael Strait



Paintings of an America composed mostly of light, purity, and emotional pain.

Man, I’m still kind of amazed that this music was once as popular as it was. I had no idea the American public once had such a fondness for atmospheric minimalism! “Crazy” is still a bar karaoke classic in the South (and possibly elsewhere too – I can only speak from my experiences) to this day, and that usually stops making sense to me the moment I leave the establishment. It’s a heartbroken ballad, sure, but it seems like kind of a weird one by my modern standards. The instrumentation is more concerned with creating an atmosphere than conveying a specific emotion, as if it’s trying to construct the sort of environment in which a loving connection could, conceivably, be found and then lost rather than actively trying to evoke the way it feels. But what’s most fascinating about the song – and, indeed, the album as a whole – is that this atmosphere is conjured mostly by suggestion, with sparse, barely-there instruments sketching faint outlines of an emotional universe that you are encouraged to fill with your own experiences. I, personally, think the faint pianos and barely-audible rhythm guitar scratches of “Crazy” evoke the lovely emptiness of the American South on a not-unpleasantly warm summer’s night, but that’s almost certainly just my personal biases leaking onto the canvas. The architecture is here for you to provide your own setting for Patsy’s plaintive wailing, and that’s true of much of the album.

It’s evident right away, with “I Fall To Pieces”. Like the rest of the album, it’s mostly very sparse – just a bassline and vocals, really – but it sounds like far more is hiding in the distance, occasionally making suggestions of itself visible for a second or two at a time. Par example: there’s a little three-note guitar refrain that pops up repeatedly in the verses, laden with softly chiming echo effects and matched by a quiet male backing choir, casting a dim and momentary glow over the fields from the heavens before folding back into the vast, velvet darkness that blankets all things, smothering the world in tranquility and peace. Shortly thereafter, we reach “The Wayward Wind”, which sounds as if it has entirely disconnected itself from human foibles and flaws and exists in some ephemeral dreamworld, floating atop tremulous string arrangements and egoless guitar. The flawless beauty of these environments does not, of course, do much to ease poor Patsy’s soul – still she wails out her heart about missed moments, lost love and the miseries of life without companionship, immersed in the ceaseless beauty of this American dreamscape and yet lacking a soul to share it with.

“I Love You So Much It Hurts” is the other song that immediately jumps out at me as a big highlight. It’s barely two minutes, but the world itself seems to slow to a crawl as you listen, with a glacial mist of low organs, near-imperceptible guitar chimes and soft backing vocals coating the world in a ghostly, angelic haze that shields one from the passage of time. It’s easy to get lost in this world, at least until the dancier, more energetic “Seven Lonely Days” jolts you out of the dream-haze and into a more physical, motive world with fewer distractions from poor Patsy’s endless heartbreak. If it seems like a weaker song in comparison, then that’s only fair – it’s a great song, but how can it compare to the rich tapestry that preceded it?

If there’s a flaw with this album, it’s that it’s a little frontloaded. “Crazy” is the last real highlight, save perhaps for a rerecording of “Walkin’ After Midnight” which is just a teensy bit more polished and, alas, less devastating than the original. The other songs on the post-“Crazy” second half are all beautiful, but they contribute to the overriding atmosphere of the album more than they set themselves apart as individual pieces. Great for laying back and bathing in, but if I were to analyse them I’d pretty much just be repeating myself, so I won’t bother. Of the couple of songs on the first half that I’ve not covered, “Foolin’ Round” is very intriguing in that it is nearly impossible to identify any of the individual instruments played on it save for the bass, so successfully do they meld into one unit. “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)”, meanwhile, isn’t quite on the level of brilliance of its immediately surrounding brethren but nonetheless feels like it exists in a far less corporeal world than our own, evoking mystical concepts and distant lands only vaguely corresponding to the places we know as Mexico or suchlike.

Pop music, eh? Amazing what the public is capable of appreciating so long as it comes packaged with relatable lyrics. This is as painterly and atmospheric as any ambient music, and it doesn’t sacrifice an ounce of emotional impact for it. Certainly worth your time as much as any Oren Ambarchi record. Now, how long shall I make my dedicated three-or-so readers wait until my next review? I’m thinking maybe five hundred years…



STRAIT TO THE POINT: Patsy Cline – Patsy Cline (1957)

Review By: Michael Strait


Misery itself. As beautiful as it gets.

“It’s nice to know that there’s music that isn’t rooted in misery.”

– Dave Grohl, idiot, on country music

I plan to review a lot of country artists in my time here, but I’m not entirely sure how I’m gonna go about it. Country artists are a prolific bunch, and the legends tend to have discographies that stretch off into distant solar systems. I’ll come up with a way of reviewing them in depth one day, but in the meantime I’ll start with Patsy Cline, who had the decency to die in a plane crash after releasing only three albums.

Now, I’m not the most knowledgeable bloke when it comes to this era of music. I know, however, that this album isn’t what you might call pure country. It’s got that cosmopolitan Nashville style, pulling all sorts of different influences into a great country-shaped melting pot that bears a striking resemblance to just about every form of American popular music of the time without actually committing fully to being any of them. That sounds like a sneering insult, but it’s not, because the end result isn’t the beige pile of mud one might usually expect from such a collection of distilled references. Instead, all the styles ultimately end up subservient to country music’s peculiar lightweight gorgeousness, where all the individual instruments seem to disappear into a shimmering, ephemeral cloud of divine beauty, annihilating the musical ego entirely as the individual musicians disappear into the collective. Atop this glowing fog resides the heartbreak of Patsy Cline, screamed and wailed out with the power of a thousand suns. This dichotomy between the divinely perfect and the brokenly human is what motivates much of my favourite country music, and this album is as lovely a representation of it as you will find anywhere.

Across this album’s runtime – less than half an hour, as was normal in country music (and, indeed, much other music) of the time – there are two components that remain constant, undergirding all the tracks and binding the influences together. The first, most famously, is Mrs. Cline’s gorgeous, sonorous voice, resonant with overwhelming emotion and occasionally inflected with just a little bit of ugly phlegm to get the point across. The second, more subtly, is the backing vocals of The Anita Kerr Singers, present (unless my memory doth deceive me) on even the roughest, bluesiest tracks here. That serves to smooth down the edges of some of the grittier influences here, making sure that even the r&b riffs of “In Care For The Blues” and the swingy horns of “Too Many Secrets” ultimately sound as if they are in the service of some omnibenevolent being. This goes both ways, though. The opener, “That Wonderful Someone”, is ostensibly a plain-and-simple worship song for that aforementioned omnibenevolent being, and the softly clean instrumentation sounds as tranquil and bright as a clear mountain stream, but Patsy’s voice still peals across the shimmering waters like a doleful horn, reminding us all – I guess – of the perpetual fallen sinfulness of humanity, tragically heartbroken even as surrounded by the natural wonders erected by that wonderful someone.

I don’t know how genuine her pain was – I’ve not properly read up on her biography – but it certainly sounds real. I’ve never heard anyone wail quite as desperately as she does on “Don’t Ever Leave Me Again”, which may contain the most wince-inducingly convincing scream (so to speak) of the words “I feel like dying” ever uttered. “Three Cigarettes In An Ashtray”, too, is truly tragic, as Patsy wails her heart out in a smoky, empty room lit only by sparse chiming guitars and soft backing vocals. That’s a continuation of the implicitly nocturnal theme found on “I Can’t Forget”, with its quiet, intimate piano and sleepy rhythm guitar laying contentedly atop the angelfeather bed conjured by the backing choir. Patsy herself, sadly, enjoys no such contentedness – she’s still up, bathing in the meagre light of a fading fire, sadly reflecting on her lonesomeness. Even amid the comfiest domestic bliss a set of instruments and a choir can evoke, she gets no rest.

That nocturnal theme is finally made explicit on the album’s big, famous standout, “Walkin’ After Midnight”, which is far more evocative and atmospheric than a two-and-a-half minute song about loneliness has any right to be. It’s got a lovely, meandering slide guitar riff and a bit of a doleful rhythm, but most of that atmosphere comes from the echoey resonance of Patsy’s voice and the painterly fullness of the lyrics, sketching a fulsome picture of an emotional state rent between lonesome anguish and the tranquil peace of midnight solitude. “I stop to see a weepin’ willow/ Cryin’ on his pillow/ Maybe he’s cryin’ for me”, she sings, drawing out the last syllable into a mournfully climbing peal of despair. As someone who finds very little in the world as relaxing as being alone at night, I relate; I just hope I never experience pain like this. What was it Young Thug said? “I ain’t never been in love, I don’t know how pain feels”? If this is what love leads to, maybe he was right about it all along.

There isn’t a bad song on the album, but I guess I have to concede that “Walkin’ After Midnight” is the only really big standout. “Then You’ll Know” is so gorgeously tranquil that it seems to make time itself stop when one listens to it, but I’ll freely admit that it kind of disappears fairly easily from the memory after it’s done, as do most of these. It’s a great album, but ultimately it’s not a masterpiece and it’s far from the best country album I’ve ever heard. Still, come on – ninety whole ratings, RYM? Ninety? This lady deserves so much better than that. I’ll do what I can to correct this grave collective error myself over the coming weeks.


Review By Michael Strait


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?



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

Review by: Michael Strait


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.

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

Review by: Michael Strait


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.

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

Review by: Michael Strait:


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.