Bun B is hip-hop's grieving widower, the guy for whom you want to leave a pot roast on the front steps. You watch what you say around him, knowing that, less than three years after the death of his UGK partner Pimp C, the wound is still raw.
Less like a wife, however, Pimp was a father figure for Bun, the man who nurtured him into a top-tier rapper and a music industry force. Pimp always said that Bun was the better MC, although, to Bun, Pimp was UGK's true essence; the one who did the production, the one who sang the hooks.
"I never wanted to be a solo artist," Bun says. "But I have to do what I have to do, as an artist, as a person still expected to carry on the legacy, musically and personally. It's difficult, but it has to be done. You just suck it up and move on."
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His latest album, Trill O.G., sees him coming to terms with Pimp's death the best way he can — by crafting an aesthetic all his own.
In UGK's division of labor, Bun was the good cop. His rap moniker came from his family's childhood nickname for him, "Bunny," after all, and he was an intimidating-yet-fair presence willing to talk some sense into you.
Pimp, then, was the bad cop, the high-voiced, unstable provocateur, as likely to slap your face as to sing you a love song. His volatility made him fun to watch, but it left UGK on shaky ground.
Bun first felt his world imploding upon Pimp's trip to prison. He'd been arrested for flashing his gun at a mall-goer who was mouthing off to him, and began a four-year stint in 2002 after failing to complete what he felt were unfair community-service requirements.
After years of toiling, UGK had been poised to enter the mainstream, but Bun was convinced that Pimp's blunder threatened everything they'd built. He went into a tailspin, drinking heavily and punching and smashing whatever was in his path.
"Nobody wanted to get in my way at that time," Bun says. "I [took] my frustrations out in all the wrong ways."
After getting his head together, he signed to Rap-A-Lot, who released his highly regarded 2005 solo debut Trill. He became a Southern rap goodwill ambassador, appearing on songs with anyone who would have him, and shouting out Pimp's name nearly every time he spoke. He also focused on expanding the duo's marketing and merchandizing possibilities, and opened himself up to the press in a way that few rappers have.
Universally acknowledged as the best interview in hip-hop, Bun remains open and accommodating. We actually spoke for the first time while he was in the midst of the intercontinental road rally Gumball 3000, driving a black Porsche Cayenne at speeds of up to 120 miles an hour.
This was just days after he'd fallen off a stage in Stockholm and split open his knee and tore up his arm, which somehow hadn't prevented him from racing, doing press and performing in a sling.
Upon Pimp's release there was a pent-up demand for UGK's music, and their triumphant 2007 double disc Underground Kingz — an all-star exhibition featuring a veritable who's who of the group's Southern and Northern contemporaries — hit No. 1.
To Bun, then, Pimp's death four months later from syrup use (combined with his sleep apnea condition) must have felt like an alternate-reality version of Groundhog Day. Every time he woke up, things got worse. But he sought a less-destructive approach to his sorrows this time around.
"I've dealt with situations in the wrong way, and I wanted in the future to not do that, to keep myself spiritually based, keep myself as mentally sound as possible," he says.
He found counsel in, of all things, septuagenarian writer Joan Didion's Pulitzer Prize finalist and National Book Award-winning 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, which concerns the emotional aftermath of the death of her spouse, writer John Gregory Dunne. Bun had originally bought the book for his mother after her second husband's demise, and ended up reading it himself.
"It helps you understand that grief is something that everyone goes through," he says, "and [that] you're not expected to handle it as gracefully as we would all like to. You talk about people as if they're still here, and that's okay. It's just a sign of how close you were with that person."
Also cathartic has been preparing for his upcoming religion and hip-hop class at Rice University, as well as the making of Trill O.G., his third solo album. (Trill-ogy, get it?)
Though his successful second work II Trill came out a few months after Pimp's death, he hadn't adequately processed the loss by then. Nor had he been able to accomplish neat tricks like the one he's pulled off here, a collaboration featuring both Pimp and Tupac Shakur, called "Right Now."
The track was initially intended for a Tupac tribute CD, but when it didn't make the cut, Bun resuscitated it, adding a new verse of his own, a hook from crooner du jour Trey Songz and a fresh beat from Steve Below, a "country rap" stylist and Pimp disciple. The result, marvels Bun, is a multigenerational banger that includes a verse from the '90s ('Pac's), the '00s (Pimp's) and 2010 (Bun's).
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Trill O.G. sounds more commercial than we're used to hearing from Bun or UGK, with singles like "Countin' Money" and "Just Like That" embracing a clubby, Atlanta-influenced, trap-rap flavor. The album has pretty much all of the hottest rappers currently working, from Drake to Gucci Mane to Young Jeezy, the result of Bun cashing in some of the favors he's accrued over the years.
"It's time for me to start offering some real leadership and guidance, not just for Southern and Texas artists, but all artists, 'cause I'm an O.G. to everyone in this game," he says.
It's true, of course. His two decades in hip-hop are an eternity for a Southern MC. But it nonetheless sounds strange to hear him making such statements, perhaps because he's employing the "I" pronoun instead of the "we." No matter how big of a UGK fan you were, it's nonetheless nice to hear him embracing his own solo sound, and doing what's necessary to stay relevant.
One suspects that, whether Pimp is enjoying the fine champagne up in heaven or the cheap tequila down below, he wants Bun to live it up while he's still here on earth.