Over the past couple of years, southern rap has come to reign as the most successful and prolific of any subgenre in hip-hop. But in over-saturating the music market and settling on image instead of quality, it has managed to become stale and unremarkable in a relatively short amount of time. Producers are quick to fill their beats with those utterly dreadful 808 handclaps and substitute the word “minimalism” for “lack of musical training and ideas,” and their tunes have suffered for it. The typical southern emcee may have talent and a knack for poetic wordplay, but many of them have sacrificed their intellectual integrity by falling into the trap of chanting babble and dumbing down their rhymes, ultimately eschewing substance for a catchy hook. This has contributed to the suspicion that hip-hop’s demise is near, and unless a rapper from within can breathe life into the southern rap climate, the supposition will soon be confirmed.
Fortunately for the South, rap veterans UGK have been in the game long enough to know what it takes to reinvigorate the musty culture. The duo, consisting of Pimp C and Bun B, has been churning out albums for the past 15 years. Though they have been musically successful with each effort they have constantly failed to attract the attention of the masses. Fortunately for them, there is now enough wiggle room in radio programming for the outfit to get the recognition they rightfully deserve. With the release of their double-disc Underground Kingz after Pimp C’s recent jaunt in prison, the duo seems destined for stardom, but only as long as the music’s quality meets the lofty expectations.
And they unquestionably do. With Underground Kingz, the duo delivers a fantastic opus that will surely turn heads. Although its overwhelming length often makes it more tedious than captivating, the album shines with its many lyrically and musically extraordinary moments. The record’s most entrancing feature is the two rappers’ dichotomous styles, which gives the effort a consistently evolving sentiment and allows for a versatility that maintains its bold integrity. Bun B raps in his dirty drawl, growling out his verses with enough character to enliven almost any beat. Pimp C flows in a shrill and nasal tone, stretching out the ends of many phrases to add emphasis to his subject matter. But what makes the duo so endearing is their ability to switch from rappers that objectify women to downright romantics on back-to-back tracks, allowing the many facets of their personalities to have a wholesome dignity and inspire the listener to keep listening.
Like with many southern hip-hop discs, Underground Kingz features its fair share of tedious and thin drum patterns, but the duo takes that style one step beyond its confines by fusing rich soul samples with their region’s signature sounds. For example, “Int’l Player’s Anthem”, a contender for best hip-hop track of the year, features a lush Willie Hutch sample pitted against rat-tat hi-hats and anemic snare pops. This combination makes the track a supple yet bumping adventure, and with OutKast dropping some of their best verses in recent memory, the song gloriously sets the tone for the rest of record. The use of samples also works fantastically on tracks like the slithering “Still Ridin’ Dirty” featuring Scarface and the cinematic “Swishas and Dosha,” allowing the album to appeal to those outside of their dirty South-loving fan base.
In recruiting several unexpected guest stars on the album UGK ventures beyond its comfort zone. Many of the features seem like standard protocol, with Too Short popping up on the funk guitar-ridden “Life Is 2009” and Slim Thug, Vicious and Middle Fingaz dropping verses on the speaker-busting anthem “Take Tha Hood Back”. But the duo reaches out to some of the most stylistically opposite lyricists for some of the tracks, giving the album a diversity that prevents the record from being an inclusive Southern jaunt. “Two Types of Bitches,” is a “Desperado”-esque ode to the various types of ladies and features grime rapper Dizzee Rascal who surprisingly sounds comfortable next to the duo despite his rich English accent. Backpack emcee Talib Kweli also makes an appearance on the breezy “Real Women,” which has a more positive and respectful attitude towards the female sex than the objectifying “Two Types of Bitches.”
Diverse as the album may be, it truly suffers in its bloated length. The record unnecessarily has three different versions of “Int’l Players Anthem” (one featuring OutKast, another with Three 6 Mafia and the third is chopped and screwed), which makes the duo seem a little too eager to cash in on the success of their surprising smash. The group also puts two versions of “Like That” on the album, an original and a remix, with the latter sounding significantly superior with its cherubic harp-centered beat rather than the measly bump-and-grind soundscape of the original. “How Long Can It Last” could also use some paring down, as it chugs along for over six minutes, and “Grind Hard,” featuring Young T.O.E. and DJ B-Do, becomes grating with its nauseatingly repeated vocal sample.
But regardless of its overblown track listing, Underground Kingz is precisely the record that Southern rap needs to convey that it still has some originality. UGK do not reinvent hip-hop or even create anything close to groundbreaking, but they provide a refreshing work that shows how exciting rap music from the South can be. With this type of album in their discography, UGK show that they have proudly earned their moniker “Underground Kingz”. Even though it has taken them well over a decade to concoct such a hard-hitting record, they have finally come up with the proper chunk of material to demonstrate that they can balance being both the pioneers and the leaders of the subgenre.