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

Review by: Michael Strait:

ugk1

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.

Advertisements