Southern rap's most respected elders seal their legacy with a final album worthy of their stature.
What else is there left to say about UGK? Thankfully, their legacy as one of the most important acts in the history of rap has been cemented. Unfortunately, we reached this point due to a few regrettable events: the incarceration of founding member Pimp C and eventually, and most notably, his death at the age of 33 in December 2007.
As a group, UGK basically birthed Southern rap as we know it. Over a warm and lush musical bedrock pulling from funk and soul, Pimp and his partner Bun B spun multidimensional stories of hood life. They celebrated the spoils of selling crack and coke, but their music was always steeped just as much in dread, paranoia and sadness as brash boisterousness.
As rappers, Bun and Pimp were natural and classic complements to each other, not so much diametric opposites as kindred spirits with different temperaments. Pimp was vulgar, cutthroat, and unrelenting with an aggressive and nasal voice that always made him seemed a bit wild-eyed (this, of course, made his serene, introspective moments that much powerful). Bun was the more dexterous lyricist and cerebral personality, and his measured, clinical flows played the appropriate flip side to Pimp's dead-set laser beam. These qualities would manifest themselves as the two grew older, as Bun would evolve into Southern rap’s most visible and gracious forefather, while Pimp would end up serving time and verbally sparring with next-gen stars like Young Jeezy.
UGK 4 Life, while great -- especially in the context of albums made by rappers in their 30s -- is not the enduring document of latter day UGK. That would be 2007’s Underground Kingz, a sprawling two-disc opus six years in the making. 4 Life is a truncated album whose recording was cut short by Pimp’s untimely death, and so its nearly 60-minute run time is filled out by sampled hooks and a total of 13 guest rappers or singers. Its impact won’t be lasting -- in two or five or ten years, no one is going to pull this out for a UGK fix. But it’s still a testament to the overall skill, and more importantly, the revolutionary vision of the two that as a group they have managed to make one of the best rap albums of the year at the age when rappers are supposed to be making embarrassing appearances on rock albums.
One thing that has always colored latter-day UGK records -- be it as a group or on their various solo projects -- has been Pimp and Bun’s relative success in their attempts to forge a palatable and identifiable sound out of the classic UGK template of funky, live bass and guitars and the more synth-based sounds of the rap that followed in their wake. UGK 4 Life outsources almost all of its songs to outside producers, but they turn in beats that are learned and reverent of past UGK records. Though the beats here are on the whole a bit more dense and laconic than the window-cracking trunk-rattlers of the group’s heyday, it fits for an album that finds the two rappers comfortable with their place in hip-hop history.
That’s not to say that UGK had lost their fire, but instead to praise them for making a high-quality rap album during a time in their lives when most rappers run out of things to say (just ask Jay-Z). A lot of that has to do with the duo’s imperviousness to trend-hopping, a characterization that has colored both their sound and their verses. As aging rappers, both Pimp and Bun have continued to rap passionately and fervently about the subject matter they all but minted: fucking hoes, shiny cars, moving dope, and, in the case of Pimp, his dick. The fact that this has been UGK’s music for nearly two decades doesn’t blunt the impact of the album, and so UGK 4 Life is comfort food for Southern rap heads: not as invigorating as the first time, but still the best all the same.
And as we continue to mourn the death of Pimp C (not in a maudlin sense, but in the sense that it’s tough not to think while listening to 4 Life about all the Pimp verses we lost), we can take solace in the final song on his group’s final album. On “Da Game Been Good to Me”, over a beat of spaghetti-western guitar flourishes that eerily evokes Pimp riding off into the sunset, he croons in his soulful singing voice: “You lost your spot when you went pop / CD flopped, you ain’t hot / The game been good to me.” At the end of the day, no matter at what age you go out, what more can one ask for?