“There was a time I’d come to New York and could be anonymous,” says Bun B. “But that all changed over the past few years.” Seeing as how he hails from Port Arthur, Texas, you’d think Bun B, Bernard Freeman, would blend right in at a place called Houston’s, but this isn’t the neighboring metropolis that he and his partner, Chad “Pimp C” Butler, helped make famous with their brand of trill street blues. As a matter of fact, this isn’t even the South. This is Houston’s restaurant, an upscale steakhouse in the Flatiron district in New York City, where Bun has come to promote 4 Life, the sixth and final studio album he created with Pimp as the duo UGK.

Dressed in jeans, a colorful graphic tee, matching windbreaker and a black fitted with neon lettering, the rap great sticks out among the restaurant’s power-suit-wearing patrons like a triple-stacked Styrofoam cup at a wine tasting. And sure enough, not long after he sits down, the server, a petite woman in her early 20s, recognizes she’s in the presence of hip-hop royalty. “Excuse me, but aren’t you Bun B,” she inquires, after running through the day’s specials, including the tortilla soup that Bun will order along with a tuna burger, fries and margarita. “You did a song with my boy Termanology. I thought you looked familiar.” Considering all the chart-topping collaborations Bun’s done with the likes of Jay-Z (1999’s “Big Pimpin’”), Three 6 Mafia (2000’s “Sippin’ on Some Syrup”) and OutKast (2007’s “Int’l Players Anthem [I Choose You]”), “How We Rock,” a single he cut last year with a little-known Boston up-’n’-comer, isn’t what you would expect to win him notice. But this is just a testament to the Underground King’s far-reaching appeal—even after 17 years in the music business.

From their 1992 debut, Too Hard to Swallow, to 1994’s Super Tight, to the classic Ridin’ Dirty in 1996, to Dirty Money in 2001, UGK consistently delivered state-of-the-art gangsta rap. The combination of Bun’s lyrical muscle with Pimp’s melodic musings on the mic and behind the boards made for a deep trove of trunk-rattling anthems that earned the duo about the highest level of respect the rap game affords—from fans and peers alike, regardless of coast or region. Still, it wasn’t until 2007’s Underground Kingz that the pair saw their hard work pay off in a major way. The double-disc effort earned UGK their first No. 1 album, selling just under 160,000 copies in its first week out, and eventually garnered a Grammy nod for “Int’l Players Anthem.”

“We picked a great week,” says Bun of how the veterans managed to top the charts in August 2007. “Secondly, we had the album that people wanted to hear. UGK as a group was blessed in that people understood that we was gonna be consistent with what we did. When I say consistent, it’s like we’ll make music that makes sense in 2007, but you won’t be able to stamp it as 2007… When you stick to the basics and you really deal with issues and human nature, issues that the average person has to deal with, it’s timeless.”

Then, just as everything seemed to be falling into place, disaster struck. On the morning of Tuesday, December 4, 2007, news broke that Pimp had been found dead in his Hollywood hotel room. The L.A. County Coroner’s office attributed his passing to sleep apnea, a pre-existing respiratory disorder, combined with the promethazine cough syrup found in his system. He was only 33, and he left behind a wife and three children.

Pimp’s passing was a huge blow not only for his family and friends, it was a huge blow for hip-hop in general. As Bun says, “Hip-hop without Pimp C is boring.” For nearly two decades, UGK had stood as one of the game’s greatest duos. With one-half of the group gone, many thought it was a wrap for their reign—but Bun had other plans.

“We had to do this album,” he says of 4 Life. “We had the music, so we had to do it. There was no way around that, because UGK always meant more to people… There were a lot of fans and supporters who kept us going with the movement when we wanted to let it go. I think it was the best way to honor them for 17 years of support. And to honor Pimp for 17 years of making the great.-Anslem Samuel

For more of the Encore article, make sure to pick up XXL Magazine's May issue hitting newsstands April 7th.