Album review: The posthumous triumph of 'UGK 4 Life'
In an old Boondocks comic strip, Aaron McGruder once bestowed an apocryphal but apt title on a posthumously released Notorious B.I.G. album: “Squeezing Life out of Death.” Indeed, other than cash-in Christmas compilations and Pat Boone novelty metal records, few forms of music are more maligned than records from dead rappers. Typically cobbled together from stray scraps of sound left by the deceased, the results typically resemble an attempt to spread a tablespoon of cream cheese across an entire bagel: At best, it’s dry but serviceable; at worst, it’s completely tasteless.
So consider “UGK 4 Life” a major triumph, not just for Bun B, the surviving half of Port Arthur country-rap legends UGK, but for the legions of fans left mourning the loss of Pimp C. In the interim between Pimp’s passing in December 2007 and the release of the duo’s seventh and final album, Bun had repeatedly reiterated that a large portion of the tracks had already been recorded. But with the late Chad Butler largely attributed as the mastermind behind UGK’s songwriting structure, it was anyone’s guess what the finished product would sound like.
Wisely, Bun B has resisted the easy temptation of enlisting chart-topping talents with little aesthetic bind to the crew’s concatenation of ghoulish Hammond organs, crooked Voodoo guitars, 808 drums and “swishas and erb.” In fact, the album’s lone misstep, the priapic first single “Hard as Hell,” stems largely from an incongruous Akon hook.
On all other tracks, the guest appearances auspiciously augment marvelous performances from the UGK principals. Raheem DeVaughn (“Still on the Grind”), the Isley Brothers (“The Pimp and the Bun”), and Sleepy Brown (“Swishas and Erb”) pop up to fortify the album’s salient backwoods gospel vibe. Fellow Southern legend Big Gipp of Goodie Mobb adds import to "Purse Come First"; E-40, 8Ball & MJG do the same to “Used to Be." And as if to elucidate the Underground Kingz’s influence, Lil Boosie and Webbie acquit the younger generation with their performances on a song with a title unfit for print, thanks to a hirsute fixation with feminine hygiene.
But, as befitting one of the finest groups in rap history, Bun B and Pimp C steal the limelight. The brunt of their songs focus on well-worn themes -- candy-painted cars, guns and girls, drugs and drink -- but like all great duos, their yin and yang duality produces something consistently compelling: Pimp C, the beat-making id, prone to politically incorrect rants and obsessed with women au natural; Bun B, the technically virtuosic MC, capable of astonishing nuance — the rare rapper able to sound aggrieved and apoplectic on matters of social and political policy, without veering into strident self-righteousness.
Most striking about “UGK 4 Life” is its utter absence of maudlin sentiment. Other than Snoop Dogg uttering “RIP Pimp C,” you’d be hard-pressed to know that he's no longer walking the earth. Bun B understands that the most moving tribute is the understated one and accordingly has engineered the group’s best album since 1996’s seminal “Ridin’ Dirty." "UGK 4 Life" is the rare swan song that manages to be essential for the music alone.
"UGK 4 Life"
3 and a half stars