UGK 4 Life

(Jive; 2009)

By Clayton Purdom | 3 June 2009

Even for a posthumous release, inhabited fully by the specter of one of its creators, it’s difficult to convey the rollercoaster of emotions that is “Hard As Hell,” which describes in lovingly biological detail the experience of having an erection. The first thing the listener feels is inutterable despair at the sound of Akon’s voice: “Ay-ay / It’s Akon / And UGK-ay.” Then the listener is enraptured by the inanity of the chorus, which describes the aforementioned erection with a tautological ease of mind and the woefully impleasurable metaphor “got me poking like a nail.” Then Pimp C hits the mic over fleet guitar picks and rides the uptempo drums and renders this paean to cockveins something like melancholy, or serene; it’s a purely musical triumph, wrought solely through vocal tone and (seriously) Akon’s harmonies, but buttressed finally by a rich lyrical turn from Bun B, who booms with flashes of tenderness and esotericism, name-checking Robert Crumb and exploring the stifling stillness that drapes a room newly filled with eroticism, pre-sex. Then Akon starts singing about his hard-on again.

This is nothing wholly new; UGK were always about contrast, after all. Unlike that other southern duo that thrived off contrast, though, it’s tonal, not artistic. Linguistic, even, a flag stretched between two towering emcees: barrel-chested Bun B, who seems to roll slow on wheels of consonants, and leering Pimp C, who sometimes seems to be speaking a form of English that exists entirely of long, whined vowels. Bun B’s already proven his confidence as a solo artist, taking spots on never-heard mixtapes and hotshit debuts and killing it across the board, but this remains among rap’s truest duos, thriving as they do so largely in one another’s presence. It’s this camaraderie that made their last record one of rap’s great comebacks, a double-disc exposition of a friendship built on cars, fucking, and drank.

So one last UGK record is something worth squeezing into existence, even if, without dropping in quality, it can feel like b-sides from 2007’s triumphant Underground Kingz, largely hewn from the same sonic palette and capering about with the same rough, cocky mindset. There are moments of invention in the production, like the gradually drunk brass of “Purse Come First” or pretty much every second of the ineffable, insolubly fresh “Swishas and Erb.” Mostly, though, tracks adhere to the duo’s long-running and frequently chintzy palette of swooshing fuck-you window-rattlers, all 808 fills and electric guitar licks. Despite its release date, the record bares the marks of its uneasy birth, stuck in the past, sounding determinedly pre-Obama (Bun B’s verse on “Purse Come First” would’ve been scintillating in, like, ’03) and occasionally just half-assed (“Used To Be” sounds like a MIDI ringtone of “What You Know”). But what did we expect, drastic reinvention? At this stage in the game? The titles of UGK’s last two records alone proves there’s no interest in growth here, only solidification of status.

Well…maybe not. While the duo’s shared affection for cars, fucking, and drank still inform every moment of UGK 4 Life—expect nothing more, uninitiated—the overall topicality of the record is a little more distanced from these subjects, a little more mature; it seems, rather, to be more about that shared affection itself. Tracks like “Still On The Grind,” “The Pimp and the Bun,” and “Da Game Been Good To Me” are sorta-perfect last-album tracks, resounding with the fullness of the discography but drawing from that rich artistic well that was struck so explosively on the group’s absolute artistic nexus, “International Player’s Anthem.” It sounds confident in its history and footing, as well it should: Bun B and Pimp C made variations on the same record for twenty years. But, newly, UGK 4 Life leaves listeners wondering where they might go next, and even if sated with one last release still lamenting that those further steps—gargantuan or tiny, toward greatness or overreach, whichever—will necessarily be solo, uncontrasted by that inimitable, nimble, lascivious whine we’ve lost.