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

I wish I was in dixie, hooray, hooray…

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Review by: Michael Strait:

ugk2

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.