Finally it's here in all its two-disc, 29-track, guest-star-studded, double-album glory: Underground Kingz, the most anticipated album out of Houston this year and the most eagerly awaited Texas rap album since Scarface's The Fix back in 2002. Not since 2001 have we heard a whole album's worth of "country rap tunes" by mahogany-voiced Bun B and sneeringly elastic Pimp C, the Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, the Jagger-Richards, the Waylon and Willie of Third Coast rap. These last few weeks, the hunger for this album's release last week was damn near visible.
So does Underground Kingz live up to the hype? Could it possibly? Even with three good-to-classic singles all already on the streets, probably not. Jazze Pha collabo "Stop-N-Go" and its stately, marching-band snare beats have been out for the better part of a year. "The Game Belongs to Me" and its immortal refrain — "I got Bobby by the pound, Whitney by the key, DJ Screw by the gallon, bitch, the game belong to me" — are likewise already old hat. Even the relatively recent Internet phenomenon/critical lovefest that greeted magically delicious "Int'l Players' Anthem" seems like a long time ago.
So that's one very solid single, another with an all-time classic chorus and a stout contender for 2007's Official Summer Jam. What's left?
Underground Kingz's unstated goals are to show, and tell, the rest of the world that real hip-hop can come from the South. It's pretty ridiculous that Bun and Pimp need to make this case at all, but they do — everyone from bloggers like Byron Crawford to Wu-Tang stalwart the RZA have been ragging on Dixie hip-hop, lumping it lock, stock and barrel with the feebleminded likes of "Chain Hang Low," "Laffy Taffy" and fake-ass crack rap.
So Pimp, Bun and their legion of guests — everyone from Rick Ross to Big Daddy Kane to Dizzee Rascal — set about putting the lie to that notion. The interplay between Bun's thunderous rumble and Pimp's staccato buzz saw is as wondrous as ever. Two rappers this skilled in the same group reminds me of those rare bands with two great — yet completely disparate — guitarists, like the Allman Brothers and Los Lobos. Besides complementing each other musically, they seem to pick up thinking right where the other leaves off.
Take, for example, the woozy, bluesy "Cocaine," one of the better recent anti-yayo jams. Pimp C skillfully retells the old fable of the slanger laid low by his own supply: "Everything was cool / it was ice cold / 'til I let that bitch get up in my nose." Bun, meanwhile, takes his partner's anecdote to a universal level by examining blow's history and status as global big business: "Ask Dubya, man, he's a dealer and a fan of cocaine."
(Politics crops up frequently. Throughout the album, Bun refers to himself as "Big Dick Cheney," while Pimp prefers "Tony Snow.")
Pimp C has always been the more musically oriented of the two, and he generously dollops his patented swamp funk ("swunk?") productions all over Underground Kingz. His tracks, all highlights, are easy to detect without a list of credits. "Chrome Plated Woman," built on the proto-funk groove of Aaron Neville gliding through Allen Toussaint's "Hercules," flips the script on Ridin' Dirty's "Fuck My Car," and the scratchy rhythm guitar and sanctified organ of the live-band backing call to mind the jams on Super Tight.
That 1994 album was also something of a summit between Texas and New Orleans — it extensively featured both Meter-man Leo Nocentelli on guitar and Big Easy keyboard ace David Torkanowsky. Super Tight, and not the more widely acclaimed Ridin' Dirty, remains to my mind UGK's apex, even though Ridin' Dirty is a masterpiece in its own right. Hell, to me Super Tight is the summit of Gulf Coast rap, period, not to mention one of the best records of any genre ever to come from Texas. Back on Underground Kingz, Pimp keeps that gumbo-funk simmering on tracks like "Shattered Dreams" (silken-voiced Outkast associate Sleepy Brown sings the hook), "How Long Can it Last?" and Talib Kweli cameo "Real Women."
UGK experiments with more current sounds elsewhere, with mostly excellent results. Out of 29 tracks, the only must-skip track out of all 29 is the stiff, robotic Lil' Jon cut "Like That." Even that is redeemed by a majestic Pimp C-Stevie Below remix, which oddly if sensibly is sequenced far earlier on the album.
"Grind Hard," with its heavy synths and repetitive, nostalgic hook (sampling "Cocaine in the Back of the Ride") is a grade-A H-Town-style club banger in the vein of "Draped Up" and many a Carnival Beats jam. Scarface lends UGK the backing track from the The Fix's intro on "Still Ridin' Dirty." Opener "Swishas and Dosha" borrows a squalling electric guitar from local zydeco king Step Rideau's "From Step 2 You." Cascading classical piano graces the title track, while "Quit Hatin' the South" is framed around Latimore's soul-blues hit "Let's Straighten It Out."
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Which brings us to the other half of this show-and-tell proposition. By the time "Let's Straighten It Out" rolls around, Pimp and Bun and their guests have shown over and over that the South doesn't need to ride on the back of the hip-hop bus. On "Quit Hatin'..." they spell it out exactly, with Willie D and the Gap Band's Charlie Wilson along for the ride.
Ever since they were releasing their records on cassettes only, UGK's mantra has been "the Southern way, the only way, fuck what another say." Now they can tell the haters, in all honesty, to "quit hating the South" because "we getting paper in the South." Or, as Pimp puts it, "They can put all the country-rap tunes on one side of the store, and all y'all's on the other side, and we'll see who sells out first."
Let's straighten it out indeed.
So while Underground Kingz doesn't move me the way Super Tight and Ridin' Dirty once did (but I'm so old-school that almost nothing does), it feels like a very promising kickoff for the second phase of UGK's career.