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UGK's Swan Song

On 'Underground Kingz', A Career Compendium As Last Album

On September 17, 2017

Today, we're selling the first vinyl pressing of UGK's 2007 album, Underground Kingz. Here are Liner Notes about the album, which is a 3LP on wood grain vinyl.

In 2002, Chad “Pimp C” Butler, the boisterous, often fur-coated id of Port Arthur, Texas’ Underground Kingz, was sentenced to eight years in jail for aggravated assault. The charges were mostly trumped up by an overzealous non-fan who started antagonizing Butler in a shoe store, with an assist from an overzealous Texas justice system that has found more and more ways to incarcerate its young, black men. 26 at the time of the crime, and almost 28 by the time he got sent to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Terrell Unit, Pimp C wouldn’t see the other side of prison bars till after his 31st birthday. Only one more UGK album would be released in his lifetime, 2007’s Underground Kingz. He'd be dead mere months after its release.

The sentence came at an especially bad time for UGK; after 10 years as a group, they were, finally, on the verge of going above ground, or at least breaking through north of the Mason Dixon. “Big Pimpin’,” their collaboration with Jay-Z on his top 20 album, 1999’s Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter, had introduced the “Texas Boys” to audiences outside of their strongholds, and proved that Jay-Z, and his East Coast cohort, was underestimating the south; Pimp and Bun out-rapped him on his own song. UGK followed that up with the classic “Sippin’ on Some Syrup” with Three 6 Mafia, a delirious track representing a United Nations team-up of two of rap’s best down south duos.

But then Pimp’s legal troubles happened, and coupled with the group’s label, Jive, pushing back 2001’s Dirty Money for a solid three years (famously, some 1998 albums from the label had advertisements for Dirty Money), seemingly all of the momentum UGK built had fizzled. They were revered in the south for their first three albums—1992’s Too Hard to Swallow, 1994’s Super Tight and 1996’s career-bestseller and masterwork, Ridin’ Dirty—but with Pimp facing eight years in jail, who knew where UGK would be when he finally got out?

Then, an unlikely thing happened: The south’s rap scene blew up and UGK went from being the region’s best-kept secret to being publicly acknowledged as its most influential group.

It’s important to remember the rap landscape of 1992 that UGK landed in: Rap was considered something that happened on the coasts, and everywhere in between was ignored. That attitude has still prevailed among the people who still canonize Biggie and Tupac and Snoop and Nas and Wu-Tang today. It didn’t matter to these listeners that the Geto Boys were better than a lot of the boom-bappers from the coast, or that Goodie Mob were better than Junior M.A.F.I.A. It didn't matter that Master P and No Limit were ust as big of a sales juggernaut as Puffy and Bad Boy. It didn’t matter that Andre 3000 of Outkast—until the early ’00s, the only Southern rap group most Coasties would admit to liking—got up at the 1995 Source Awards and said, “The South has something to say.”

When Pimp got sent to prison in 2002, and until he got out in late 2005, he was forced to ride the bench during the tides shifting from the two coasts to the third. You had the Houston rappers—using Pimp and Bun’s unique vernacular and sometimes even their flows—like Chamillionaire, Slim Thug, Paul Wall and Mike Jones break through to the mainstream. You had Clipse—themselves a southern duo who had problems with Jive—from Virginia, and you had Ludacris, T.I. and Young Jeezy representing various parts of Atlanta in town and on the Billboard charts. You also had Lil Wayne becoming more than the wunderkind of the Hot Boyz. Southern rappers ended up replacing every one-hit wonder rapper from either coast; in a lot of ways, the term “ringtone rap” was created to minimize the impact of Southern rappers on rap culture at large.

Suddenly, rap became the province of the south. Some people are still having the debate over which coast is better, but it’s telling that the only No. 1 Billboard single from a New York rapper in 2016 was by a kid from New York who tried desperately to sound like Atlanta’s Future (Desiigner, “Panda”).

And that brings it all back to UGK. In a myriad of ways, they influenced the direction of southern rap culture, and popular rap culture at large, over the last 15 years. They popularized the dialect (“trill,” “ridin’ dirty”) of all of the rappers above; they gave southern rap an identity that wasn’t from the coasts. They helped invent laidback, foundational flows—which you can hear everywhere; listening to UGK now is like tracking DNA through generations of people—and via Pimp’s own production, the sound of that wave of Southern rap.

When Pimp C got out of prison at the end of 2005, being influential didn’t pay the bills. He got right back to work with Bun—who had spent the intervening years becoming one of the best guest-verse hands on earth, and probably the most underrated MC in the game, overshadowed as always (and in these Liner Notes) by Pimp—and they delivered Underground Kingz. Of course, it got pushed back for close to a year, and didn’t come out until August of 2007. Surprising everyone, it debuted at No. 1 on Billboard, selling 156,000 copies in its first week.

Underground Kingz isn’t the best UGK album; that will always and forever be Ridin’ Dirty, a classic that belongs in every record collection. But Underground Kingz is UGK’s most complete album; it virtually functions as a career compendium in the form of a 129-minute album.

Every side of UGK is present on Underground Kingz, and thematically, every base from their entire career is covered. There are tough-talk songs about people who are “hustlin’ wrong” (“Take tha Hood Back,” “Grind Hard,” “The Game Belongs to Me”) and soulful songs about the limits and the mortality of hustlin’ right (“Living This Life,” “Heaven” and “How Long Can it Last”). Odes to the group’s friends (Too Short’s “Life is… Too Short” gets reworked into “Life is 2009,” Scarface’s “The Fix” becomes “Still Ridin’ Dirty”), alongside cosigns of young guns you maybe didn’t know in 2007 (Rick Ross on “Cocaine,” and Dizzee Rascal on “Two Types of Bitches”). Revealing personal tales of self-reflection (“Shattered Dreams”) co-exist with songs where UGK look down their noses at current rappers (“Swishas and Dosha”) and Charlie Wilson-featuring songs about how the south is the best (“Quit Hating the South”).

UGK were too hard to ever write a love song; they could convincingly rap about wanting to have sex with a car better than any group before or since (“Chrome Plated Woman” and “Candy” here are prime examples). So when “Int’l Players Anthem (I Choose You),” the second single and track on Underground Kingz, starts with Andre 3000’s flawless run-on verse—with the pause after “So,” in the opening line he imagines G-Chat conversations before G-Chat was popular—you’re not expecting a song that would, in the intervening years, become a karaoke and wedding classic. Built on the skeleton of “Choose U,” a song Three 6 Mafia produced for Project Pat, and utilizing the same Willie Hutch sample from The Mack, “Int’l Players Anthem” is one of UGK’s—and for that matter, Three 6 and Oukast’s—finest achievements. There’s almost too much to unpack here: the way the beat dropping feels like the swinging open of a Pyramid’s vault; the way Big Boi’s verse sounds like a machine gun; the fact that all of their verses are like a different point on the timeline of a relationship; the music video that’s a who’s who of southern rap circa 2007; the beat that feels like the pinnacle of modern music whenever you’re listening to it. There are three versions of this track on the LP—even the original, featuring Three 6 exclusively, and the chopped and screwed versions are awesome—that's how incredible it is. UGK released a lot of songs before “Int’l Players Anthem” that are stone-cold classics, but that song will live on in the hearts of a generation of kids from around the country who formally became UGK fans because of it.

Underground Kingz was, tragically, the last UGK album released when Pimp C was alive. Pimp C was found dead in an L.A. hotel on December 4, after the cough syrup he’d been drinking interacted poorly with his sleep apnea. Underground Kingz was their much-awaited comeback album—it delivered exactly what everyone wearing the ubiquitous “Free Pimp C” T-shirts were hoping for—but it was also ultimately their swan song. Another album would follow in 2009—UGK 4 Life—but it was mostly made of leftovers from the group’s vault, with pre-recorded Pimp C and Bun verses that were grafted onto new productions. It was clear the group poured all of themselves into Underground Kingz, the album that once and for all confirmed their original self-coronation. There were only two kings of the south, and both of them were in UGK.

Profile Picture of Andrew Winistorfer
Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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