By Clayton Purdom | 10 October 2007
Holy fucking shit, UGK have the number one record in America.
Sure, Finding Forever secured this honor the week previous, but that record’s a creamsicle. It hits the same pleasure center as does the soundtrack to High School Musical 2, although with less aplomb or sense of humor. That UGK have secured Billboard’s top spot with Underground Kingz is the heartwarming story of the year, assuming that hearts can be warmed by two vicious, lascivious fucks who spit straight hateful fire over shit to bump in cars, because the UGK story is a love story. Why did Bun B, in his five years of monklike cameo verses, abstain from the solo record? I’m sure Redman wasn’t busy, he would’ve teamed up. No, Bun Baritone’s sole lyrical interest while Pimp Cant did a bid was to keep the UGK flag waving, and in this mission he was touchingly militant, inspired and successful. It’s a real, unspoken love between these two men, not so much for each other (“no homo,” right guys?!) as it is their shared love for the music they helped create and define, that booming Houston thug shit. Their mic chemistry is undeniable, but it’s a science of contrast, not interplay, and it’s held aloft by a shared passion at once cool and ardent. The UGK story is a love story, and Underground Kingz is the Taj Mahal of this love, a vaulting pillared eyedrunk eternal monument.
But (unlike the Taj) this monument is made of balsa wood. The Houston sound doesn’t afford many opportunities for transcendent musicality, so the moments that do stand out merit embrace with a sort of detachment. Witness, for example, the canned brass rising ominously through the title track, the smooth jazz wah treacle on “Candy,” the billowing slow-motion “fuck you” of “Quit Hatin’ the South.” A decade ago, OutKast was synthesizing this chintziness with harder East coast influences and higher aspirations, so in 2007 the production can’t be claimed as anything greater than a pleasant throwback to UGK’s sonically similar early stuff. Too Hard to Swallow (1995) sounds dated today, and Underground Kingz sounds resolutely ready for now, but both records draw from the same palette of syrupy store-bought paints. The synths may come through cleaner here, but that’s thanks to advances in audio production, not to any emotional or sonic maturity from Misters B and C. All of this to delineate what the record isn’t—a step forward, for anyone or anything—so that what this record is can be seen more clearly.
Because this hasn’t really been done before: a musical grand reopening, one that doesn’t shirk the past decade of discography padding but doesn’t really harp on it. At no point on Underground Kingz do UGK act entitled to anything because of the time they’ve served. They come forward with the hunger and pride of newcomers, and this inspiration hums through every spare trilling hi-hat, watery guitar lick, and electric piano tinkle. The record sounds unequivocally like Houston rap, which is not, let’s admit, a very good thing; this is the city that brought us “the screwed and chopped edition,” after all. (Also, Mike Jones.) UGK have not returned as anything other than UGK, and they are not anything better than UGK, but Underground Kingz is indisputably the best UGK that UGK could ever be. That’s why this record is both a 73 and one of the best rap records of the year. If this record were any better than a 73, then it would not still be UGK. Because, I mean, how many have really listened to UGK’s other records? They can be fun, sure, but it’s just-above-mediocre stuff. Underground Kingz represents the blinding and tough self-actualization of a pretty-okay aesthetic by a pretty-great emcee (B) and a pretty-good one©. To think that all this laid latent here makes one wonder where else a bruised, banging 150-minute masterpiece could be hiding.
Now, some may be asking, “Where does ‘International Players Anthem’ figure in this assessment? Surely, Clay, you concur that this is the best song of any genre to appear in the past few years? Surely its iridescent beauty allows Underground Kingz to supercede its Houstonian origins?” To which my answer is simple: I don’t count “International Players Anthem.” It doesn’t belong on this album, or any other album that’s ever come out—not even Aquemini (1997), the best album of the decade to which Underground Kingz most frequently nods. The Anthem contains in it the power of the Texas sun. It is a rousing rap Anthem that sets a tone of such relentless beauty that the remaining album couldn’t possibly hold steady, lest the heavens fall finally to dirt and Bono’s vision of a popular music drawn from pure joy be realized by a couple dudes from Houston and Hotlanta more interested in ghostriding whips and drinking cough syrup and shit. And though the song is “about” love—not just in Andre’s soulsent verse, but in sound and glow—and though this is the very same love for music and for the act of creation that’s half of what makes Underground Kingz so much fun, it is made with elements larger than the Houston sound would dictate, and faithful adherence to this sound is the other half of what makes Underground Kingz so much fun. Also, the Anthem’s triumph is at least half Andre’s, which gives him more ownership of the track than Bun B and Pimp C. It belongs to no one because it belongs to everyone. It is on this record because it has to be somewhere, and better here than The Love Below.
Let’s just be happy it exists and move back to the album at hand, which is a great shining 73 when we don’t count the Anthem and literally incalculable when we do. There is enough here without it; there is enough here to fill this year’s empty stable of rap records, enough big moments and heroic guest spots and straight goddamn bangers to almost help us ignore that the record’s only company comes from other fogies like Pharaohe Monch and the Def Juxies. And sure, there’s still promise—Kanye’s Graduation looms around the corner, and my boy Lupe may not get pushed out of the limelight just yet. But this great unhyphenated rap record doesn’t fit in with the music of this year. It’s a sort of anti-Kanye: instead of subsuming every satellite idea of hip-hop like some colorful Katamari juggernaut, it seethes with the lifeblood of them all while still resolutely being itself, alone. It is not an encyclopedia, it is a definition. It is definitive. It is something that hasn’t happened in a few years, probably since Beanie Sigel’s last record. It is a straight rap record, and it’s a great rap record, and it’s from Houston. Go figure.