ecause there’s about five years of space between each entry in their discography, a new UGK album feels like less of an discrete output, and more of an adaptive niche: just how will Pimp C, the nasalizing swisher compactor and in-house producer, and Bun-B, an MC built around immaculate cadences and a pumiced monotone, thrive in this particular day?
Well, to no one’s surprise, Underground Kings is another accomplished, independent-minded collection of broken-in, comfortable extended metaphors (fine-ass woman = chromed-out drop, see: “Chrome Plated Woman”) and major chord guitar flicks set aflutter over boozy, after hours bass lines and those eternally popping hi-hats. The downside of crime, the upside of automobiles, and more than enough South Texas neighborhood strife. For connoisseurs of formative southern rap, this is a double-disc of comfort food (“Life Is 2009,” “Gravy,” “Still Ridin’ Dirty” “The Game Belongs to Me”) non-parallel.
Though no one would confuse UGK with Dead Prez, the Port Arthur duo has always been slyly political. 1996’s Ridin’ Dirty, unquestionably their best album, was as much a comment on collapsing second tier cities and the wasteland of the exurbs as it was a sermon on the socially real side of crime. In years since, Bun-B has worked terse political concern into his verses—on “Cocaine” he rattles off, in his flawless, metered monotone, a history of the drug: “extracted from the mountains of Peru and Columbia…taken by kings, queens, and priests in different instances.”
And though his concerns are certainly less broadly social or political, Pimp C has never been one to pull his punches. In one recent outburst, he claimed Atlanta wasn’t really the South, illuminating in smack and brag what so many more academic observers of hip-hop have failed to: that the South’s metropolis is creeping closer and closer to New York in attitude, and away from that rural attitude of utility—Pimp C: “I write ya’ rhyme, sing ya’ a hook, and make ya’ a beat!” (“Life Is 2009”)—UGK so willingly represent.
They are nothing if not practical, though. On Underground Kings, UGK employ an astonishingly diverse selection of guests and producers (Dizzee Rascal, Big Daddy Kane, OutKast, Too $hort, Marley Marl, Scarface), graft on the contemporary tools they like (plusher production with warm layers of drums, suede-wrapped digital chirps), and wield unexpected emotional touches (“Candy”: Pimp C showing empathy for the feminine! “How Long Can It Last”: almost evangelical melancholy from the gutter agnostics) to keep themselves fresh.
The album suffers from label concessions—a few faux anthems (“Grind Hard) and a few more patches of Jazzie Pha fungus (“Stop-N-Go” “Tell Me How Ya Feel”). But sequencing aside, UGK’s latest is still a cultivated, timely appraisal of the duo’s stoic, resilient trade. When everything in rap seems to be over before it begins, it’s heartening to know some things truly evolve. To wit, Pimp C: “Pimpin’ aint dead, it just moved to the web / Bitch aint gotta hit the track, aint gota give no tricks no head / Aint got to give no tricks no pussy, just cameras and screens / Easiest money you can make, it’s the American dream.”
Time may change them, but they can change time.