What do rappers lose when they get older? In the case of Bun B and Pimp C, two rappers in their 30s from Port Arthur, Tex., who perform together as UGK, the answer is, not much.
Lots has happened to them since they first got together, in the late 1980s. They helped put nearby Houston on the hip-hop map, and they helped inspire a generation of Southern hip-hop stars, from OutKast to Lil Wayne. They had a fluke hit when Jay-Z invited them to add verses to his song �Big Pimpin�,� in 1999. Then they had an even flukier miss, a couple of years later, when record-company disputes sabotaged �Dirty Money,� the 2001 album that should have been their breakthrough. Soon after the album�s release, Pimp C went to prison, where he served almost four years on charges stemming from an aggravated-assault conviction. Bun B lobbied tirelessly for his imprisoned partner, shouting, �Free Pimp C!� whenever he got near a microphone, which was often.
Through it all, they have put together a solid � sometimes brilliant � series of albums, guest appearances and mixtape tracks. Almost from the start, UGK was known for tough but smooth rhymes delivered over elegant, leisurely beats. Their lyrics chronicle a Texan underworld full of pimps who talk slick, pushers who talk tough, snitches who talk too much. They are, among other things, astute chroniclers of Southern poverty, but they�re not particularly interested in being good guys.
They prove that once more on their long-awaited new double album, �Underground Kingz� (Jive), which arrives in stores today. In a silky song called �Gravy,� Bun B waxes physiological: �When I put one up in your dome/You�ll be leakin� out plasma and pus, and your mouth�ll fill up with foam.�
Somehow, these two have grown older and wiser without outgrowing their genre; you never get the feeling that they think they�re too good for this kind of thing. Other veterans succeed by rising above the fray, but these two succeed by remaining part of it.
In 1992, when UGK made a major-label debut with �Too Hard to Swallow,� a long career hardly seemed guaranteed. On the contrary, some listeners probably thought these two were just a couple of Texas knuckleheads cashing in on the so-called gangsta-rap fad. And yet gangsta rap, broadly speaking � streetwise protagonists, explicit lyrics, hard-boiled stories � turned out to be hip-hop�s future, to the consternation of gripers past and present. Southern gangsta rap, in particular. It�s now clear that Bun B and Pimp C were ahead of their time.
Not that it would have mattered if they hadn�t been so obsessed with craft. Pimp C is the group�s main producer, and he has created a brilliantly effective template: hard, loping drums; slow-motion bass lines; suave nods to 1970s soul.
He�s also a flamboyant rapper, equipped with a pinched, braying voice and a tendency to lean hard into vowels, bending them to his will. (He also has a reputation for obstreperousness; he recently had to apologize to the entire city of Atlanta for claiming that it wasn�t really part of the South.)
Meanwhile, Bun B is the diplomatic wordsmith, respected and even beloved by his peers. He is equally capable of an unexpected insight or a brute-force barrage of steady syllables, with shifting stress patterns and varied line lengths to keep listeners off balance.
True to UGK form, the new CDs didn�t have a smooth voyage from recording studio to record store. The first single, �The Game Belongs to Me,� never caught on at radio, which helps explain why the album�s release date kept being moved back.
The second single is a glorious confection called �Int�l Players Anthem,� with a couple of spectacular guest verses from the members of OutKast and a lush beat (sampling Willie Hutch) by Three 6 Mafia. It�s just about perfect, and unexpectedly romantic, but it�s probably too unhurried � too stubborn, you might say � to be a pop hit.
In fact, stubbornness is one of this duo�s greatest virtues. You can hear it all over �Underground Kingz,� a double-album that�s solid to a fault. There are guests ranging from the dirty-rap pioneer Too $hort to the British motormouth Dizzee Rascal; from Z-Ro, the moody Houstonite, to Talib Kweli, the levelheaded Brooklynite. But most of the tracks were produced by or with Pimp C, who hews closely to the formula he invented. Fans have been waiting five years for a new UGK album, and apparently now it�s time to overdose.
There is plenty of old-fashioned trash talking here. More than once, Bun B reminds listen ers that he and his partner have brash new nicknames: Big Dick Cheney and Tony Snow. Throughout these two CDs, kilos are sold, foes are threatened, cars are painted and repainted, prostitutes are put in their place.
But you can also hear a bracing kind of clarity, and maybe it�s the kind that comes with age. In �Still Ridin� Dirty,� Bun B provides some grim context for the unapologetic rhymes elsewhere on the album:
�You live by the gun, you�ll die by the slugs, man/You live off of fiends, you�ll die behind drugs, man.� This is an acknowledgment, but it�s not a disavowal. And in �How Long Can It Last,� he scoffs at the idea that drug dealers are having fun: �They wish they lived in the �burbs, wish they didn�t have to hang/out on corners in low-income housing projects and slang.�
Bun B and Pimp C are keenly attuned to the way these antiheroes make a virtue of necessity, the way a struggle to survive comes to seem like a swashbuckling adventure. Indeed, they are never more vehement than when they�re expounding on the aesthetics and ethics of street life. At one point, Bun B lists the group�s core values: honor, respect, valor and guts. (Actually, �guts� isn�t the word he uses, but it�s close enough.)
And in �Take tha Hood Back,� Bun B fulminates against would-be kingpins who are �really hustlin� wrong� by associating with snitches, and he sounds like the exasperated elder he is when he huffs, �I�m teachin� classes: Dope Slangin� 101.� Kids today: they just don�t sell crack the way they used to.
Like all veterans, these two look back fondly on the world that made them. It�s nostalgia, but if anything, it�s nostalgia for a crueler world, not a gentler one. All these years later, their seeming nihilism seems more like integrity: a clear-eyed commitment to an old-fashioned ideal, despite its contradictions.
Surely this is part of the reason they have lasted so long, and aged so well. In their rhymes you can hear the irrational, irresistible process by which bad old days are transformed into good ones.