During their six-year separation, UGK’s whole world turned upside down. With the OGs now in their 30s, Bun B has become hip-hop’s Kevin Bacon, and Pimp C, the most popular inmate since MC Ricky D. But more importantly, the kingdom they laid claim to nearly 20 years ago can hardly be called the “underground” in 2007. Southern-fried d-boy rap is now the easy road to success, but the Underground Kingz aren’t interested in treading the same, beaten path. Following up Dirty Money, their indecisive 2001 album, the Port Arthur, Texas, twosome reunite on a self-titled double album that reaffirms the UGK ideals for a new generation.
Thankfully, Underground Kingz avoids the predictable, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink disaster that ruins most double LPs, by zeroing in on a core sound. That can be attributed to Pimp’s production prowess, which is steeped in bluesy wah-wah guitars, soul melodies and chunky bass. In fact, on “Quit Hatin’ the South,” a ballsy victory dance featuring Charlie Wilson and Geto Boy Willie D, Sweet Jones is so inspired by his musical medley that he can’t help crooning the entire first verse. Then the sparse Blackout Movement–produced “Cocaine” finds Bun teaching everyone (including guest Rick Ross) a thing or two about the international reach of the drug trade (“The power of the powder, pimpin’/You don’t understand?/Ask Dubya, man/He’s a dealer and a fan”). Hustlin’, indeed.
While they each have their individual strengths, the heart of the UGK appeal lies in the richness of their chemistry, as heard on the tortured, modern-day blues of “Shattered Dreams” or the N.O. Joe–produced “Living This Life.” But nowhere is the musical magic more obvious than on “How Long Can It Last,” starring Pimp as the loud-mouthed realist (“I wonder sometimes how life would be/If it wasn’t no such thing as D/But then I put that sweet down ’cause that bullshit don’t apply to me”) and Bun as the thoughtful idealist (“Dawg, don’t let nobody tell you what you can and you can’t do/Just ’cause they funky ass couldn’t do it, they ain’t you”).
With age, the duo seem to have also acquired a greater sense of their place in the hip-hop landscape. First, they give a nod to their West Coast influences with the Too $hort remake “Life Is…,” which is looped by Scarface and features $hort Dawg himself. Then they take it to the East with the Marley Marl–produced break-beat bounce symphony “Next Up,” featuring Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane. The raw lyricism continues on the MJG-sampling “Hit the Block,” which features T.I. Backed by a hyperactive Swizz Beatz track, Bun says, “I’m a money makin’ machine, nigga, I do it best.”
Even with the extra perspective added to the UGK mix, the double-album curse does eventually rear its ugly head—Exhibit A being the Lil Jon–helmed club dud “Like That.” Exhibit B is the inclusion of not one but two mediocre songs in which they compare their cars to women (“Candy” and “Chrome Plated Woman”), which shows that even royalty gets writer’s block sometimes. Exhibit C is the awkward mix of Bun and Pimp’s tough-talk rhymes over Mannie Fresh’s sweetly sentimental Isley Brothers flip for “Again.”
UGK’s moment to become crossover stars has long since passed with their appearance on Jay-Z’s 2000 hit “Big Pimpin’,” but on Underground Kingz, Pimp and Bun seem content with their standing, because they’ve finally got what they’ve been seeking all along: respect. —BRENDAN FREDERICK
Read the rest of XXL’s Critical Beatdown review section in the XXL’s March 2007 issue (#89)