I usually live by the credo, “If the Beatles couldn’t make a double album devoid of filler, what makes (fill in the blank) think that they can?” But UGK‘s Underground Kingz was a sprawling artistic masterpiece. Pimp C’s death only added pathos. Had this been the conclusion of the UGK story, Underground Kingz would have been a most fitting swan song.
Alas, the inevitable happened. Bun B and the other powers that be dug up the material the duo was working on at the time of Pimp’s death and UGK 4 Life, the group’s official finale, was born. The intention was to give fans a classic UGK album. For better or worse, they seem to have achieved that goal.
The style of 4 Life is in sharp contrast to the hard-hitting, dark beats that dominated Bun B’s II Trill. Those are replaced by UGK’s trademark lush, soulful sound. As a producer, Pimp C is a perfectionist, and here he gives us one final collection of songs that would embarrass any rockophile deriding hip hop for its lack of musicality. On songs like “Swishas and Erb” (not to be confused with “Swishas and Dosha”, the first track on UGK’s last album), Pimp and Bun’s rhymes are completely dominated by the instrumentation. And this usually is not a bad thing.
Unfortunately, 4 Life is a lyrically stale album. After expanding on the group’s traditional themes on Underground Kingz, Bun B has positioned himself as one of the most interesting voices in underground rap, hovering in that fascinating gray area between community building and the superficial trappings of life. But on 4 Life, he and Pimp C take a step back, relying almost entirely on the pimp/hustler personae they’ve built up over the last twenty years. There is nothing inherently wrong with these themes. When done well (and UGK does practically everything well) they can be descriptive and insightful. But with this being UGK’s farewell album, it would have been nice to see them do something a little more stimulating than a simple watered-down rehashing of their long-time formula.
I could maybe live with the fact that nearly every song on UGK 4 Life is about sex. But this is just such unbelievably vapid shit. Take “Hard as Hell” for example. Sounds like a fist-pumping street anthem, huh? Nope. It’s actually about having a boner and comes complete with the Akon hook, “That girl she got me the way she movin’ in place / Bendin’ over spread eagle all that ass in my face / She got me hard as hell.” There’s also a song called “Harry Asshole”, which unless I’m way out of the loop on Houston street lingo, is actually about a girl with a hairy asshole. The less said about that track the better.
It may be disingenuous of me to pick on UGK for sticking to the formula that made them underground superstars. But early UGK’s pimp themes were slick and inventive. They were delivered in an era where such rhymes were still somewhat groundbreaking. Here they feel forced and a little silly. Put it this way: if a multi-platinum selling artist released a collection of songs with hooks like these, the same hip hop heads loyal to UGK would be crying about the shit that’s being played on the radio.
Underground Kingz was successful because it used UGK’s long-time themes as a springboard for a work of art that managed to be thought provoking without losing all the grimy Dirty South fun. For the most part, the fun is still there on 4 Life, with fierce rhymes and beats that are almost as filthy as the lyrics. It’s almost enough to save the album. Perhaps I’m just a cynic to think we needed a little more.