UGK Were A Miracle

UGK Were A Miracle

There wasn’t a lot of hoopla around the last Verzuz battle. The face-off between UGK and 8Ball & MJG, two of the all-time great Southern rap duos, was only announced a few days before it happened. This showdown didn’t bring the chaotic drama of some past Verzuz battles. As far as I know, there was never any bad blood between the two groups, and the whole thing proceeded in orderly fashion, without anyone throwing any punches or ripping anyone’s bandana off their heads. It went down in a not-huge club, with what sounded like a fairly sedate crowd. There were guests, but there were no stop-the-presses guests. And the whole thing had to happen without Pimp C, the biggest personality of those four rappers, since he’s been dead for more than 14 years. It was still great. It couldn’t help but be great.

Part of the greatness was the whole laid-back vibe of the night, the distinct lack of competition. When the Lox took on Dipset, or when Three 6 Mafia battled Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, there were stakes. On some level, at least a few of the people on those stages felt like their legacy, or maybe their pride, depended on stomping out the other team. Bun B, 8Ball, and MJG are too secure for any of that. The only whiff of static came when 8Ball corrected a story that Gillie Da Kid had told on a podcast, insisting that he’d never had to run from J Prince. That wasn’t directed at Bun. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone having anything bad to say about Bun.

If Pimp C had been there, maybe things would’ve gone differently. These days, Bun is a kindly rap grandfather who writes forewords to Shea Serrano books, pops up for five surprise sets a day during SXSW, and rhymes “grippin’ grain” with “candy paint” every time he raps another verse. He’s not trying to start shit with anyone. Pimp, by contrast, was trying to start shit with people until the day he died. Pimp C was both a musical genius and a genuine maniac, and his unpredictability was a key part of his myth. He was always competitive, and it’s easy to picture him taking the whole Verzuz process personally. Not Bun, though.

Bun kept a mutual-appreciation society going with Ball & G, and with all of Ball & G’s guests, all night. One of my favorite moments of the show was when Twista came out for MGJ’s “Middle Of The Night” remix. When the song was over, Bun rhapsodized about his Twista fandom and said he’d been in the room when Twista recorded that song. He’d run to the studio in his flip-flops because he just wanted to see Twista do what he did in person. I love that.

That Twista story hit my heartstrings because it reminded me of the time when I still regarded certain rappers, Twista included, with a sense of awe. I still do sometimes, but age and repetition make that harder. 8Ball & MJG made an ideal match for UGK because both groups come from that era. They both started making records in the early ’90s, before Southern rap became big business. They were both regional institutions before they became canonized rap legends. They both have deep catalogs full of hits, and they both have styles built around slow-roll beats and towering charisma. Both of them have records that have held up beautifully over the decades — partly because they were so influential and partly because they were just great.

I love 8Ball & MJG. They’ve got classics for days, and they’re both deeply underrated as rappers. They made “Relax And Take Notes,” a song that comes from their post-peak period that never really became a big hit and that’s built around a slightly-forced Biggie sample, as if to remind the world that they were on Bad Boy at the time. But I play that song all the time. That track has what might be my favorite Project Pat verse ever, and all three of its verses are perfect. (I go back and forth on whether I prefer 8Ball being poetically understated — “Illegal hustlin’, dirty money musclin’, spend it like I never saw a day of pain and sufferin'” — or MJG being cartoonishly overstated — “Damn! I done made all of y’all shit your jeans!/ This looks! Like! It might! Be a job! For Mr. Clean!”) The UGK set, meanwhile, was largely devoted Bun half-rapping along to Pimp’s recorded verses, like he was a ghost’s hypeman. And yet Ball & G never stood a chance, at least in my heart. Those UGK songs are too good.

Ever since that Verzuz battle, I’ve been confirming something that I knew all along: UGK are the all-time champs in the crucial category of music that makes me feel incredible when I’m driving around on a hot day. The group’s music evolved in a lot of directions during their years together, but it always came back to a central sound — woozy organic instrumentation layered over slow-thunder drums, the style that Pimp C always called “country rap tunes.” Pimp was so devoted to that style that he came close to turning down his guest-spot on Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’,” the song that became UGK’s biggest hit, and then he went ahead and wrote something perfect for the track anyway. If you’ve ever been in a big group of people rapping along with Pimp’s verse — “unnh, now what y’all know about them Texas boys, comin’ down in candied toys, smokin’ weed, talkin’ noise” — then you already know.

UGK’s arc is practically a Shakespearean tragedy. These two guys come up with this sound that’s so far removed from what everyone was doing at the time that they could sell hundreds of thousands of albums without approaching the mainstream. They release four great albums, two of which are perfect, and they build themselves up to a point where they can’t be ignored anymore. But then, just as they’re finally on the brink of breaking through, Pimp C gets himself locked up, sentenced to eight years on a probation violation. This would kill most groups, but Bun B goes on a legendary guest-verse rampage, screaming “free Pimp C” at every available opportunity and making Pimp into a mythic cult hero. When Pimp comes home, UGK are bigger than ever. They make a double album that has fellow legends on almost every song, and it debuts at #1. Then, two years after getting out of prison, Pimp C dies from a combination of codeine and sleep apnea at the age of 33. It’s all just too fucking sad.

But the music isn’t sad. The music hits notes that nobody else could. As a producer, Pimp C, a classically trained musician, had an early understanding of what rap could do. He was quietly bringing in Meters veterans to add subtle gutbucket funk accents to his tracks for years. He also knew how to use his voice. His choruses were airy and beautiful, and his raps leaned hard into his monster twang. He sounded like the most confident person on the planet. Bun B was a technical virtuoso with a rumbling godlike voice and a commanding writing style, and the two fit each other perfectly. A thing I think about sometimes: You could make a case for two different verses on Ridin’ Dirty, UGK’s 1996 masterpiece, as the greatest rap verse of all time. On the opening track “One Day,” Pimp comes with something so suffocatingly, shatteringly sad that I’ve seen it reduce people to tears in a nightclub. Then, on the very next song, Bun gives one of the most stunning pure-rap displays I have ever heard.

At the Verzuz battle on Thursday night, host Greg Street said a couple of times that Bun had been Pimp’s favorite rapper in the world and that Pimp had never been shy about saying it. Before he performed that dizzying “Murder” verse, Bun said that he was about to show why he was Pimp’s favorite rapper — a rare show of ego from one of rap’s humblest greats. During the battle, Bun made the point, again and again, that it was not a battle. It was a celebration, with two legendary groups coming together to show why they were legends. But if it was a competition, Bun would’ve won it with that verse. Big Boi coming out for “Int’l Players Anthem” would’ve just been a victory lap.

Did the world needed to be reminded that UGK were great? That 8Ball & MJG are great? Maybe! Both of those groups were ahead of their times. When Pimp C was in prison, the rest of the world caught up to UGK. The records that the duo released in the ’90s sounded perfectly current in the ’00s, and that’s one of the reasons that Underground Kingz, their 2007 double album, hit so hard. These days, though, rap has moved onto other sounds, and even the artists who indulged in UGK nostalgia after Pimp’s death have moved onto other things. (Big K.R.I.T.’s most recent record, after all, is a sort of blog-rap nostalgia effort that he recorded with Wiz Khalifa and Girl Talk.) Give or take Megan Thee Stallion, who nicknamed herself Tina Snow in honor of Pimp, today’s rap A-listers barely mention UGK anymore. That’s fine. UGK’s legend is safe, and the world moves on. But something like that Verzuz battle, low-key as it was, is great for reminding the world why that music matters.

Memorial Day was this past weekend. Summer is here. Where I live, it’s already hot enough to be gross outside. There’s always going to be new music that demands your attention, but sometimes, that stuff can wait. If you’re out on a sunny day, driving around, maybe consider doing yourself a favor and putting UGK into rotation. It’s been working for me.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Trapland Pat – “DOA” (Feat. Big30)
Trapland Pat makes pretty music. This floats.

2. Pouya – “Serpent”
I’ve got three friends, brothers who used to play in a space-rock band together and who then opened a brewery in the mountains, and they all look like Pouya. Which is to say: Pouya looks like a guy who used to play in a space-rock band and who now runs a mountain brewery, except he’s out here chasing purses, ducking hearses, one life no reimbursement. I think that’s cool.

3. 25AR – “Hottest In My City” (Feat. Rob49)
Whenever random Southern rappers show up on New York street-rap bangers, I’m happy. Rob49 is from New Orleans, and this track sounds nothing like his usual stuff, but he destroys it anyway.

4. C1 & LD (67) – “Hillside Demons”
UK drill can make great party music, and it can also make great coiled-anxiety music. This song is the latter.

5. Moneybagg Yo – “See Wat I’m Sayin”
I’m not sure when or how he got there, but Moneybagg Yo has now hit the level where every random single drop feels like an event. He’s at that glorious rap-career point where he’s confident enough to glow right through the track but none of his shit has gotten played out yet. I love to see it.

FURIOUS FIVE

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