Back in 1987, when Chad Butler and Bernard Freeman were first writing the rhymes that would become their debut cassette The Southern Way, neither one of them ever would have dreamed that their music would one day echo off the walls of a Louis Vuitton boutique in the Galleria. But that's exactly what happened last Monday night: Rap-A-Lot hosted a semiprivate listening party celebrating the release of Bun B's second solo album, II Trill, at Houston's outpost of the glitzy French luxury emporium.
Hell, back in '87, you couldn't even buy any Southern rap (other than 2 Live Crew or Vanilla Ice) in any record store in town, much less one in the Galleria. And yet, here, 22 years later, Bun B's music had conquered not just Houston but America and the world.
Perhaps all that factored into Rap-A-Lot's decision to hold the party where they did. In any event, it was a memorable evening. Trim, gliding waiters swished through the crowd handing out bottomless flutes of Moët while Box DJs spun everything from the White Stripes and Steely Dan to Pimp C. solo jams. Soon enough, Bun's mahogany voice rumbled lines like "Mane I'm a gangsta call me the hood superstar, and I'm a gangsta ridin' in my candy painted car, 'cause see a gangsta always down to rep for his hood, and to do a little bad so I can do a little good."
Madd Hatta, Chamillionaire, Slim Thug, TV Johnny Dang, and Bun's Port Arthur Lincoln homie Stephen Jackson of the Golden State Warriors and a couple dozen stunning women milled around the store as starstruck shoppers gazed in the window at the flyest display in Galleria I, II, III and IV put together. Hell, for those two hours, the Louis Vuitton store wasn't even in the Galleria. It was, instead, in the Trilleria.
I walked over to Bun to pay my respects. I told him it was a triumph of a record and a wonderful party.
"Thanks, John," replied Bun. He waved his hand at the champagne, the ladies, the music. "Partake."
Which is just what I did that night, and is just what I've been doing with II Trill since I got it two weeks back. The verdict: Put the best nine tracks from this record together with both mixes of "Draped Up," "Trill Recognize Trill," "The Story" and "Get Throwed" from 2005's Trill, and you'd have something as good as Super Tight and Ridin' Dirty. What that means is that there are almost twice as many keepers on II Trill as there were on Trill.
As usual, the stuff I like best is church organ-drenched and full of funky, bluesy guitars. One such is the Chops-produced "Damn I'm Cold," which opens with some skittering, trademark crazy cat rhymes from Lil' Wayne, whose gravelly rasp is a good counterpoint to Bun's wood-grain thunder.
"Get Cha Issue" sports a similar old-school UGK gumbo funk groove, and better still, opens with an eerie descending banshee wail from none other than Port Arthur wild child Janis Joplin. Bun shines here lyrically, too; he opens by smacking around corrupt preachers and moves on to dirty cops and Larry Craig. ("Got senators suckin' dick in airport bathroom stalls.")
There's more than a little bit of a Jamaican tinge to the record. Sean Kingston sings the hook on lead single "That's Gangsta." On U.G.K. track "Underground Thang," producer Cory Mo whips up a Steel Pulse stew for Bun and Pimp to trade verses between sung hooks by Chamillionaire. Pimp's verse will make you laugh and cry at the same time; just something about the way his simultaneously elastic and metallic voice and praline accent delivers "bald-faced liar tryin' to call me a snee-yutch, I did four in population with a bald-faced beeeaatch" cracks me up until I remember, again, that the Pimp is no longer with us.)
Former Black Uhuru frontman Junior Reid sings the hook and raps on "If It Was Up II Me." This one is another classic, a heart-cry for our gentrify-first, answer-questions-later times. Bun decries lead-based paint and asbestos in the projects, not to mention the developers and politicians who would just as soon raze the whole thing and throw up some condos. "Development is good for the 'hood, yeah that's what you tellin' us, but bitch you on the payroll of builders and developers," Bun raps, sounding like a Southern Chuck D. "Fuck what you sellin' us, pipe dreams for suckers, you can't take that 'round the corner to them other muthafuckas."
But II Trill is not all jerk chicken jams and social laments. Shout-outs to the late Pimp C abound, from the J. Prince intro (by now, Rap-A-Lot should put out a compilation of their C.E.O.'s greatest hits) to the fun New Orleans-Houston club banger "Pop It 4 Pimp" (featuring Webbie and Juvenile, reprising "Back Dat Azz Up") and the touching, Stevie Wonder-sampling "Angel in the Sky," in which Bun not only reminisces on his late friend but also adds in a prequel to "The Story," Trill's oral history of U.G.K.
It wouldn't be a Houston rap record (or a U.G.K./Bun B joint, for that matter) without a car song or two, and II Trill sports a good one in the Lupe Fiasco collaboration "Swang on 'Em," which marches forth on a brass-band like synth-horn riff and drum cadence.
I also dig the intro track, from the aforementioned J. Prince intro to Z-Ro's hook, in which his baritone, somehow ethereal, comes descending out of bombastic storm-clouds of synth like, I dunno, God, or something.
Not everything is as successful. The Jazze Pha collaboration "My Block" doesn't do much for me, and I really liked the last one ("Stop-N-Go"). Bun's on point lyrically on "If I Die II Night," but the synths are overcooked, and I think "Pop It 4 Pimp" is a much better banger than the Scott Storch-produced "I Luv That." "You're Everything" is the big pan-Southern summit, guest verse-a-thon, sporting everyone from Rick Ross to David Banner and 8Ball and MJG. Once again, there's too much of that fat "Draped Up"-style synth.
Not that that synth is inherently bad — it was deployed with devastating effect on "Draped Up" and also on II Trill's closer "Keep It 100" — four minutes, 37 seconds of Bun alone, barking out pure fire on the mike to yet another revamped old-school U.G.K.-style track from Chops.
So it occurred to me there in the Trilleria Louis Vuitton: II Trill is twice the record Trill was, the same way Super Tight was twice the record U.G.K.'s major label debut Too Hard to Swallow was.
And you get the impression that the next record won't be a falloff, because for people like Bun B, in this world of desire, plenty is never enough.
I remember Steve Earle was at his most miserable and drug-addicted when he had fulfilled every dream of his youth. On the title track of his now out-of-print "vacation in the ghetto" album The Hard Way, he even articulated those thoughts:
"I woke up this morning and I took a look around at all that I got.
These days I've been lookin' in the mirror and wondering if that's me lookin' back or not.
I'm still the apple of my mama's eye,
I'm my daddy's worst fears realized.
Here of late all this real estate don't seem all that real to me sometimes."
Earle put his demons behind him a couple of years later, released his greatest album ever in Train A Comin' and has gone on to release four or five more great records and several more good ones.
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This is not to imply that Bun is in the throes of any kind of addiction — it's just an attempt to explain that he has that same hunger and temperament. I watched him mill around the well-wishers gathered at the party, and every now and then he would take himself off to a corner and survey the room alone. Was he wishing Pimp was there to help him savor the moment? Probably. Most definitely.
But I also couldn't help but think that, even with his rejoinder to me to "partake," even on this night of triumph when the champagne flowed, the flashbulbs popped and the very air in the room seemed to be spun of gold, he was thinking, "Is this all there is? What am I going to do for an encore?"
And that is the true hallmark of a real artist.