In the South, where I grew up, people fight about great rap duos the way people in African countries fight about politics. It gets personal when you talk to some people in Atlanta, my hometown, about who the real force behind Outkast is: Andre 3000 or Big Boi. Apologies to Mr. Boi, who does outshine his counterpart from time to time, but Andre is a one-of-a-kind talent. Anyone who starts a verse with the words "paragraph indent" deserves to be spoken of in the same vein as Jesus Christ.
But this just proves my point. It's impossible to decide who's better or who really makes the duo tick. Imagining one without the other would be like eating a peanut butter sandwich. Sure, it's good. Sure, it will curb your hunger pangs for an hour, but it sticks to the roof of your mouth and it's not nearly as good as when it's with jelly.
It's for this reason that I write with a heavy heart this evening, because Pimp C, who along with Bun B was one half of one of my favorite rap groups ever, is dead. He was found earlier today in a Los Angeles hotel room, apparently cut down by natural causes.
Pimp C, real name Chad Butler, was the sweet raspberry preserves of the Port Arthur, Texas, duo UGK, which stands for Underground Kingz. I first thought that the name was somewhat inappropriate for a group whose first foray into the mainstream was alongside Jay-Z in "Big Pimpin." After I saw them in that video, which was my first encounter with them, I thought, "These guys aren't for me," and didn't give them a second thought.
But sometime in college, a couple more UGK songs started rotating on Atlanta radio which caught my attention. I started digging through the archives and kept discovering more songs by them that I absolutely loved. Pretty soon, my little 32-song Rio mp3 player was full of them. One of my favorite Pimp C verses is off their buttery, chilled out classic, "Wood Wheel."
Please note that I didn't have to Google "UGK Wood Wheel lyrics" or fire up my iTunes to recall these lines. This is why:
I just spent 60 G's on a brand new Eldoree:
Black on black drop-top 'lac,
Northstar, fifth wheel on back.
Sometimes I feel like Lil' Keke, with my trunk steady hummin',
Had to leave my bitch
Cause I fell in love with my chrome plated woman.
Anyone familiar with Pimp C's cloying, but decent, verse on "Big Pimpin" might read the above with a roll of the eyes. "Oh, not this again. Another writer supplicating himself at the foolish altar of over-macho, bling-loving, misogynist rappers."
Not so. Maybe Pimp C had a complicated attitude towards women. Maybe he liked to rap about Cadillacs and wood grain steering wheels. Many people have rapped about this stuff. What matters most, however, is how a thing is rapped about, and whether the candor of the delivery, the immediacy of the images, and the sparkle of wit makes us forget that we're actually peeking in on a brutal, unforgiving world. This was Pimp C's gift, and if you can't understand that after listening to the high pitched, virtuosic fast-fast-slow drawl he uses to say these lines on "Wood Wheel," I really can't help you.
In these few lines, he compresses the sentiment of a song like "Today Was a Good Day" into one run-on sentence of a verse. It took Ice Cube an entire song to get across what Pimp does in three exuberant fragments. When you listen to "Wood Wheel," which is a kind of back and forth lyrical joust between Pimp C and Bun B, you feel the entire thing mounting, climaxing at this verse from Pimp. Just when you thought Bun B had kinda won with a million dollar reference to Johnny Mnemonic, Pimp comes back with that verbal photograph of a brand new El Dorado and that crucial fifth wheel on the back.
I love how Pimp saves that detail for the end. How he places the "fifth wheel on back" at the end of his description of the car. It's like you're standing there on a corner watching it roll past you, admiring the candy-coated black paint job, the black leather interior--when all of a sudden, there's that fifth wheel trailing, like a parting wink. You see the car he's talking about. You see the man behind the wood wheel taking his car out for a spin and knowing how jealous you are of that utterly extraneous, completely necessary fifth wheel on back.
Pimp poetry aside, he was also capable of evoking other moods. One of my favorite glimpses of a more reflective, somber Pimp C comes in the closing lines of "One Day You're Here (And Then the Next Day You're Gone)."
My world a trip. You can ask Bun B, bitch--I ain't no liar.
My man RoRo just lost his baby in a house fire.
And then when I got on my knees that night to pray,
I asked God why he let these killers live
And take my homeboy's son away.
Man, if you got kids show 'em you love 'em,
Cause God just might call 'em home.
Cause one day you here, but baby the next day you gone.
I never thought this verse or this song would be so appropriate so soon.