STRAIT TO THE POINT: UGK – UGK 4 Life (2009)

Review By Michael Strait

ugk4life

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?

 

 

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