After more than a decade of regional grind, Port Arthur duo UGK’s crossover moment came seven years ago with a set of verses on Jay Z’s “Big Pimpin’.” Signaling not only their own apparent ascension to A-list status, the lines “Now what y’all know ’bout them Texas boys /Comin’ down in candied toys, smokin’ weed and talkin’ noise” raised hopes of the Lone Star State’s acceptance into hip-hop’s big leagues.
Sadly, it proved a false start for UGK themselves. Their third album, 2001’s Dirty Money, failed to capitalize on this spike in profile, and in 2002, rapper-producer Pimp C was jailed on firearms charges. By his release in December 2005, though, plenty had changed. While rapper Bun B, assuming his rightful place as one of Southern hip-hop’s most respected ambassadors, campaigned for his cohort’s liberation via an unstoppable run of guest verses and a solo LP, the Dirty Third had barged its way into the mainstream. You couldn’t plan a better time for a reunion, and Underground Kingz shows that a six-year hiatus has done the pair little harm. Despite playing out over 26 tracks and three bonus cuts, this homecoming opus avoids the standard double-album pitfalls by not letting cameo vocals crowd the action, focusing on the interplay between Bun’s bluff precision and his partner’s comedically nasal flows on the title track, “Heaven,” and “Tell Me How Ya Feel.” An undeniably powerful chemistry between these MCs shines throughout, strong enough to match up to an array of guests that includes Dizzee Rascal, T.I., and Geto Boy Willie D.
Pimp’s unmistakable gospel-influenced G-Funk instrumentals only underpin eight songs, but the OutKast-featuring lead single “International Players Anthem,” helmed by Three 6 Mafia’s DJ Paul and Juicy J, is an ideal match, hooking itself around a soaring, soulful Willie Hutch sample. There’s still innovation to spare in the rhymes, too, notably the Ballardian car-as-significant-other jams “Chrome Plated Woman” and “Candy.” But when such old friends and heroes as Too $hort (“Life Is 2009”), Scarface (“Still Ridin’ Dirty”), and the troika of Marley Marl, Big Daddy Kane, and Kool G Rap (“Next Up”) enter, it’s especially clear that UGK are finally getting the props they deserve.