We going hard in the paint like Carmelo…
Talib Kweli showed up for last night’s Bun B album listening party. So did, I think, Fab 5 Freddy and DJ Premier (or at least two dudes who looked a whole lot like those guys). I can’t imagine these NY rap luminaries showing up to support virtually any other Southern rapper: maybe Scarface or OutKast or Devin or a reunited Goodie Mob, almost certainly nobody else. But Bun was one of those guys who effortlessly demands total respect even before Pimp C, his partner, suddenly died a few months ago. On his best days, there’s no better rapper working today. On his worst, he’s still somewhere in the top ten. His timing is impeccable, his writing is vivid, and his voice communicates a gravity that can’t be replicated. Sharing a room with this guy for the second evening running was a humbling affair. Addressing the crowd assembled crowd last night, Bun was humble and appreciative, and while the album was playing, he took care to talk to every last person in the room, like a born politician. I can’t quite overstate the shock of hunching over and scribbling on a notepad and then realizing that Bun B is standing over you, asking how you’re doing and if you’re getting your drink on. This was an especially fancy listening party: good catered food, free expensive drinks, an incongruously glitzy Times Square top-floor room with disco balls everywhere. Bun’s got Zune paying for all this crap these days, and a TV screen above the stage played the same two Zune ads on a continuous loop all night. Parties like these never exactly provide a great context to hear an album for your first time, since music inevitably sounds different coming from those club or studio speakers than it will in your car or on your iPod (ideally, in this case, the former) a few months later. And it was especially bad here, since more of the crowd was obviously there to schmooze than to actually hear the album. The speakers last night were oddly shitty, burying Bun’s verbiage in bass and making it all but impossible to understand his words. But I can say with some certainty that II Trill is a truly solid album, a slight improvement on the first Trill and a nice little DVD extra to Underground Kingz.
II Trill was mostly done before Pimp died, and it sounds like it. If Bun was really worried about carrying on the UGK tradition here, he’d have made a total depressive slow-churn long-player. But no: II Trill doesn’t take a whole lot of risks, and it’s clear Bun wasn’t trying to make anything other than an accessible and thorough solo album. There’s no explicit Pimp tribute until near the end. (That’s unless you’re counting “Pop It for Pimp,” the pretty good club-rap collab with the Trill Ent. crew, which is the different kind of explicit.) The eventual Pimp tribute, “Angel in the Sky,” has to contend with a sickly beat and a rote R&B chorus, but I still can’t wait to hear it in a situation where I can actually make out everything Bun’s saying; nobody does wrenching like that guy. The rest of the time, Bun goes hard but stays away from introspection. We don’t get a moment like his powerfully candid and insightful UGK memoir “The Story” from the first Trill. Instead, he’s mostly just talking about how hard he is, and that’s fine. The first third of the album is especially strong, a near-unbroken string of total bangers, his producers doing streamlined versions of Pimp’s woozy funk production. (Clinton Sparks and Chops, in particular, come through here.) In this context, even the first single, the kind of inadvisable Sean Kingston/JR Rotem collaboration “That’s Gangsta” doesn’t sound too bad, though it probably helps that they were playing it really loud in that room. After those first few tracks, the inevitable club-songs and girl-songs start up, and those songs generally work pretty well on their own terms. Bun brings a strident forcefulness to everything he does, and the album is programmed so the beats slide into each other fairly seamlessly, which helps. Producers like Scott Storch and Jazze Pha, guys I usually can’t stand, dial back their most irritating tics. And even if I’m not particularly interested in hearing Bun tell some chick that it ain’t a thang to buy her some Vera Wang, those tracks generally come with gut-rumble bass, which generally convinces me to forgive a lot. The last third gets more serious, Bun detailing various societal ills and calling out police and politicians. None of this strays far from what you’d expect to hear Bun saying, but it’s all done efficiently and with conviction.
There’s not a single New York rapper on II Trill, which makes the appearance of all those NY rap dudes even more telling. And whereas the massive all-Houston posse cut remix of “Draped Up” from the first Trill was one of the defining moments of the circa-05 Texas rap takeover, Bun doesn’t waste any time trying to recapture that on this one. The only Texas rappers who show up are Pimp, appearing posthumously, and the Bun’s Mddl Fngz crew, whose one spotlight song is OK. (Z-Ro and Chamillionare also make appearances, but they’re singing hooks, not rapping.) A whole lot of guest-rappers do show up on II Trill, but it’s a well thought-out lineup. Bun trades verses with Lil Wayne on “Damn I’m Cold,” a song I can’t wait to hear again. 8Ball & MJG and Young Buck and David Banner all have good moments. On one particularly heavy bounce-track, Lupe Fiasco gets a chance to justify all the talk that he grew up listening to Southern rap instead of Tribe, and he acquits himself admirably. Even with all the guests, though, this is Bun’s show, and that guy is basically a national treasure at this point. He can keep making records like this for the rest of his life and never record another masterpiece and I’ll be happy.