The hullabaloo surrounding the return of UGK may be greater for blood brothers Pimp C and Bun B than for fans. Like the Geto Boys and disciples Three 6 Mafia, the Texas Two toiled from the late ’80s to mid-’90s in the relative obscurity of the South and earned, at most, a healthy reputation with locals and hip-hop cognoscenti. While their peers achieved greater commercial success and recognition, UGK failed to realize the dream: The gold-certified Ridin’ Dirty in 1996 set the stage, two high-profile guest appearances in 2000 (on Jay-Z’s B-side smash “Big Pimpin'” and Three 6 Mafia’s “Sippin’ on Some Sizzurp”) made the turn, but the big payoff never came. Instead, cofounder Pimp C was incarcerated in 2002 and suddenly solo Bun B single-handedly led a five-year campaign to raise awareness of his partner’s dilemma and to keep the group’s name alive.
However, this seeming career derailment may have inadvertently been an incubation period for a slumbering giant. After all, this end of the twenty-first century already brought Three 6 Mafia a Grammy — you’d think the original purveyors of all things trill would be awarded some modicum of success. Subsequently, UGK’s eponymous seventh album deservedly earns the “most anticipated” superlative.
So, do the perennial underdogs actually dig themselves out from underneath the wood, nails and dirt? In this case, the question is simple, but the answers aren’t as easy.
To their credit, Pimp and Bun take time to address the stack of questions awaiting them. Over the course of two discs — both containing more than sixty minutes of music and, thankfully, a bare minimum of superfluous skits — they tackle the dichotomy every middle-aged hip-hop artist faces: relevance in the game because of past hustles, but obsoleteness for that same reason. Thus, Underground Kingz is pure hate it and love it: critiques of young bucks (“You MySpace’n and Facebook’n/ Playin’ games with them toys” on “Swishas and Dosha”) and concessions to current standards (the unimaginatively flossy metaphor of “Chrome-Plated Woman”); past hits redux (the Too Short update “Life Is 2009” and the obstinately titled “Still Ridin’ Dirty”) and occasional fits of experimentation (the scallywag scamp-fest “Two Types of Bitches” with U.K. grime rapper Dizzee Rascal). Unsurprisingly, the album’s least convincing moments occur when the group waffles between being stuck in the past and dragging its feet into the present.
However, Underground Kingz also features a fair number of upgrades to the UGK legacy. “The Game Belongs to Me” repackages Pimp C’s Bobby & Whitney quip from his most recent solo effort (as well as that half-baked Rolling Stone line) into new dope: pure, uncut UGK that swaggers with confidence, slumps with funk, and slides into your memory. “International Players Anthem” aptly broadens Project Pat’s 2002 sleeper “Choose U” with some subtle editing and inspired observations from OutKast. (Can “CC every girl I used to see-see ’round town” please replace “Shake it like a Polaroid” as the Andre 3000 quotable?) The group even pulls off the royal flush of providing something for right and left, old and new audiences: the by-the-books shit talking of “Two Type of Bitches” is paired with “Real Women,” a song that screams “Hey ladies!” not just with a Talib Kweli verse, but also with the ace-in-the-hole sample of neo-D’Angelo Raheem DeVaughn.
Certainly, Underground Kingz could have easily been reduced to a single disc of bangers — rounded out by the old-school symphony “Next Up” with Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap and the hometown ode “Quit Hatin’ the South” — but the sprawling journey is like a catharsis for the duo. Perhaps with the shit off their chests, they can resume a new course and finally earn their long-awaited prestige.