UGK 4 Life
2.5 out of 5 stars
After more than 15 years of big pimpin’, straight hustling and riding dirty, hip hop’s “trillest” duo UGK is no more. The 2007 death of rapper Pimp C (due to a combination of sleep apnea and a presumably elephantine amount of promethazine) has forced surviving group member Bun B to declare that UGK 4 Life will indeed be the pair’s final album together. It’s the bookend to a long, sporadic career that is perhaps defined more by popular guest appearances than the group’s own hit-or-miss catalog.
Largely recorded before Pimp C’s death, UGK 4 Life is no sentimental tribute record. Actually, there’s hardly a whisper of the late rapper’s demise. Instead, the album offers UGK’s typical lyrical fare: salutes to various chemicals (“Swishas & Erb”), filthy sexual anecdotes (“Harry Asshole”) and general hip-hop thuggery (pretty much the whole record). That’s a good move — the refusal to get sappy and mawkish turns out to be the most fitting tribute of all, considering Pimp C’s long devotion to keeping it real.
If only the album’s quality was as consistent as UGK’s uncompromising credos. With the familiar balance of laid back, bass-heavy West Coast production and Dirty South cadence, the pair doesn’t really venture outside its musical precedents. The most notable feature of the beats is the prominent use of guitar. There’s more six-string on the album than on most indie-rock releases these days, resulting in an organic, funky vibe not heard since Death Row’s heyday in the mid-’90s. But for every solid song, there seems to be an equally abominable counter-track.
First, the abysmal: UGK pays homage to the bouncy, synth-heavy type of club banger exemplified by Usher’s “Love In This Club” and T.I.’s “Whatever You Like” by basically ripping them off. Take the vocals off 4 Life’s “Used to Be” and you’re left only with the music production’s comparative awfulness to distinguish it from its precursors. Where T.I. and Usher treated listeners to crowd-pleasing choruses on their hits, UGK neglected to supply the requisite hook. Even more baffling, the duo extends the already played-out concept to a mind-numbing five and a half minutes, making the dead-on-arrival track even worse.
Similarly offensive is “Harry Asshole,” which, I guess, the less said, the better (“When she pops it from the back / you see that hairy asshole”). The title pretty much covers it. The Akon-supported “Hard as Hell” is less fetishistic but just as graphic. It’s a standard-issue Akon production, and the group’s prurient verses do little to save it from the dregs of banality.
Still, the album’s not without its saving graces. Arguably the strongest cut, “She Luv It” boasts an infectious, carefree aura and a classic hip-hop chorus. UGK enlist the help of Ron Isley on “The Pimp and The Bun,” the album’s most soulful track by far. The combination of seductive guitar lines and Isley’s silky vocals makes for a track that transcends the album’s general air of stifling mediocrity.
UGK’s final album is assuredly not the group’s best (that distinction could go to either 2007’s double-disc Underground Kingz or 1996’s Ridin’ Dirty). Apart from a few stellar standouts, a couple fetid missteps and some cringe-worthy moments in which Pimp C portentously mentions cough syrup (his death drink), UGK 4 Life rarely elicits any strong feelings at all. And as for the memory of Pimp C, a man renowned for uncouth expression and lyrical bombast, listener apathy could be the biggest disservice of all.