When the now deceased Pimp C, of pioneering Southern rappers UGK, got locked up in 2002, the task of keeping the underselling but legendary group relevant fell to his best friend and partner Bun B. Bun was, and still is, the more languid of the two. His aqueous drawl contrasted with Pimp’s throat-attacking, uncompromising sneer, and Bun’s laid-back, effervescent verses played the thinker to Pimp’s shoot-then-ask nihilism. But Pimp’s incarceration stoked Bun’s fire, and in 2005, he went on an absolute tear, murdering verses on tracks by heavyweights like T.I. and Slim Thug, but also by then-unknowns (to the mainstream, at least) like Young Jeezy and Webbie. It was both goodwill politicking (“Free Pimp C” cries belied the fact that he idiotically violated his probation) and pissed-off headhunting, but even more so, his willingness to show up on tracks by mostly young Southerners illustrated what had always been at the core of Bun’s art: an undying love for his people and his craft.
Bun reached out, both for the benefit of his group and for the benefit of the South, and on his excellent second solo album, II Trill, the South reaches back to him. His first album, the triumphant but uneven Trill, had the red carpet-rollout of rappers that its successor does, but in the wake of both Pimp’s death and UGK’s first number one album, the collection of guests on II Trill gives the album the feeling of a sort-of Bun tribute. And not in an egotistical way either, as neither Bun nor his guests bow at the altar of the work he’s done, either implicitly or explicitly, for Southern rap. But you get the feeling that the many guest rappers who show up here do so with feelings of pride and resposibility, from Lil Wayne, who delivers two of the best and most coherent verses he’s spit in months, to Juvenile, who inconspicuously steps back into the spotlight for the stripper-jam “Pop It 4 Pimp”, to Young Buck, who steals the solemn “If I Die II Night”. They’re, at the very least, quietly doing what they can to repay the man who helped pave the way for the success and solidarity that Southern rap now enjoys.
This is, of course, still a Bun B solo album, even though his solo tracks are outnumbered basically four to one, and Bun lords over the proceedings like the seen-everything veteran that he is. He’s not an incredible rapper anymore, at least not lyrically, but no one—not now, not ever—sounds as at home and as commanding on the warm, funk-indebted beats that define much of Texas and II Trill. And even though there are outliers here—grimy post-No Limit synths, expertly chopped reggae samples—the album’s producers outfit Bun with the type of mature but pavement-splitting instrumentals that he made his name rapping on.
On “Damn I’m Cold”, the album’s best song, he and Wayne trade verses (and pass the baton) over wailing organ squalls, spidery guitars, and a meandering bass line, parlaying each other’s unparalleled ability to talk shit (Wayne: “I’m with Ben Frank so much he’s starting to look like me”; Bun: “Fresher than Ozium, cleaner than wax floors / I’m slick as linoleum, swangin’ them ‘Lac doors”) into a potential Southern touchstone. On “I Luv That”, the album’s best solo joint, Bun manhandles Scott Storch’s slippery robot-synths, spitting the same type of king-shit that he has for decades, yet he still sounds invigorating doing it. As a bonus, the subtle left-field turns that made a mess of Trill succeed in spades on II Trill. Bun owns “Undergound Thang”’s spurting reggae horns, and on “If It Was Up II Me” his grim-world portrait gets added levity from plaintive Jamaican guitars, blunted drums, and splintered keys. Even Lupe Fiasco, the dude who made his name rapping about skateboards, slides through “Swang on ‘Em” and does car-talk like he’s been slumming around Houston since birth.
And in the end, it’s Bun’s ability to make a coherent puzzle out of the 20-plus guests and his desire to stretch the boundaries of his sound that makes II Trill such a satisfying listen, something like the Southern Late Registration. But unlike that album, II Trill is obviously not Bun B’s defining musical statement; UGK has way too many classics in the bank for that. What it is, though, is a consistently great rap album by a consistently great emcee. Let’s not take it for granted.