There’s the fabled “conscious,” “black CNN” side of hip hop, with lyrics that address inner-city concerns, bolster the downtrodden, transmit Five Percenter arcania, and generally reflect elements of the poor, minority American experience with a breadth and clarity that no other sort of music allows. But there is another side to hip hop as well, a side that serious heads often ignore in their efforts to make the genre seem credible to outsiders. Commonly known as “ignorant hip hop,” to detractors and admirers alike, this tradition feeds on the most hateful, backward, violent, misogynist and otherwise disgusting psychic vomit that rappers can spew into a microphone. Sometimes it confronts the mainstream directly (Too $hort, 2 Live Crew, Eminem). In a few unusual cases, it creates critic’s darlings (R.A. the Rugged Man, J-Zone). Like a lot of entertainment that plays to its audience’s less savory impulses, it tends to bank well.
It doesn’t take a bachelor’s degree or a familiarity with the BDP catalogue to perform ignorant hip hop, but it does take a certain amount of skill and abandon – until you’ve tried it, even in regular conversation, don’t assume it’s easy to extol the virtues of “pregnant pussy,” or threaten to visit a rival MC at home, and really sell it. Few rappers can sell it like Chad “Pimp C” Butler, MC and producer for Port Arthur, Texas’ UGK. The way he wraps his nasally twang around his shit-talk is gloriously, hilariously hateful. It’s absurd, disturbing and cathartic at once. With his deep, deadpan counterpart Bernard “Bun B” Freeman, and a slinky, guitar-laced trademark sound, UGK helped fashion the template for the blunt, bass-heavy “Dirty South” brand of ignorant hip hop successfully employed by Master P, Ying Yang Twins and a lot of other deeply derivative acts… but they were also a huge influence on breakout Southerners such as Scarface and Outkast (whose Andre 3000 contributes a guest verse to “International Player’s Anthem,” the lead single from Underground Kingz).
This slightly top-heavy double-album is a well-deserved celebration, both of Pimp C’s recent release from the joint (for an offense only slightly less bizarre than the stuff he raps about) and the South’s recent dominance over hip hop’s aesthetic sensibilities and media perception. With that understood, it takes few risks. Despite the off-puttingly extensive roster of guests (including Big Daddy Kane, Willie D, Three 6 Mafia, Kool G Rap, Jazzie Pha, Rick Ross, Dizzee Rascal, and Talib Kweli, of all people), it maintains a surprising consistency for a hip hop double-disc set, avoiding the sprawling ambition of the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, the frustrating filler-reliance of 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me, and most of the other annoying quirks of the once-popular enterprise. It tacks a few remixes onto the end, but like the rest of Underground Kingz, those sound great, particularly Lil Jon’s stammering, harp-tinged revision of the languid disc-one cut “Like That.” It’s all worth hearing once, preferably through a real system, and there are at least 75 minutes of repeat heat.
To understand how the guest rappers strengthen the undertaking, listen to “Life Is 2009,” featuring Too $hort, a towering legend of ignorant hip hop. Specifically, listen to the manner in which Pimp C and Bun B adopt $hort’s cold, deliberate flow and use it to describe their own history, at the same distance and with the same pokerfaced irreverence as their guest. They effectively become the man. UGK may be ignorant, but few MCs are so adaptable.
If there’s anything disappointing about Underground Kingz (besides a few requisite filler tunes), it’s simply not offensive enough. As shock-rap is getting another predictable, simple-minded tut-tutting from the mainstream's guardians, hearing Pimp and Bun get fully, ridiculously rude here, on this album that shot to #1 in its first week, would’ve been a potent guilty pleasure indeed. Instead, we get mostly clichéd, repetitive car-drugs-bitches-snitches-chips talk, with some vague regional defensiveness (“Quit Hatin’ the South”) and forced introspection (“Heaven”) thrown in. But it’s still damned impressive, if not as polarizing as it wants to be.