On Friday, one of history’s all-time great rappers put out an album. Though he’s been active since the 90’s, his new record felt as fresh and vibrant as anything he’d done in his prime, offering hints of where hip-hop could go in the future while still remaining resolute in its ties to history. The album showcased the rapper’s wordplay, storytelling abilities, as well as his considerable technical mastery over his craft. He’s 45, it’s a record that only a 45-year-old, one with experience and perspective who retains a sense of playfulness, could make. If you couldn’t guess from the headline of this article, as well as the picture floating above this text, I am definitely not referring to Eminem. Instead, I’m talking about Bun B, whose new record Return of the Trill has been playing on loop in my headphones since it dropped and is perhaps the perfect model of what it means to age gracefully in hip-hop.
In case you’re unfamiliar, Bun B is probably best known as one half of U.G.K., the legendary Port Arthur, Texas duo responsible for classic tracks like “Pocket Full of Stones” and “Int’l Players Anthem,” as well as stealing the show on Jay Z’s “Big Pimpin’.” He’s done songs with everybody from Beyoncé to Pete Rock to Parquet Courts. He’s more or less the unofficial mayor of Houston — his cousin, meanwhile, is the actual mayor of Port Arthur — and he’s definitely the only person alive who has taught a college course, created a coloring book, and earned a five-mic rating from The Source.
In U.G.K., Bun B’s basso profundo served as a powerful counterpoint to the high-pitched drawl of Pimp C, whose vocal energy complemented Bun’s gravitas and whose instrumentals forged the template for country-rap tunes that producers have emulated to this day. When Pimp died in 2007, it was a blow both personally and professionally for Bun — in addition to being groupmates, the two were best friends — and Bun B’s solo career, in a sense, will always be defined by, and perhaps in conversation with, that loss. II Trill, his first record after Pimp’s death, was primarily devoted to the sounds of modern southern hip-hop, while 2010’s Trill OG felt less like an album and more akin to a survey of various hip-hop styles designed to showcase Bun’s mastery over his craft. (His record before Return of the Trill, titled Trill OG: The Epilogue, split the difference between the two.) And though these albums certainly have their high points — check out the absolutely fantastic “Let ‘Em Know” if you don’t believe me — they’ve lacked the sense of cohesion and purpose that defined the work of U.G.K.
Return of the Trill, however, changes all of that. Though Pimp C was a one-of-a-kind rapper, producer, and personality, Bun has honed in on a sound and style that offers just the right amount of familiarity without regressing into blind nostalgia. Rather than demonstrating his considerable esteem in the music world by calling in favors from the hottest names in hip-hop, this time around Bun has enlisted the services of his acolytes, artists who grew up on U.G.K. and are more than enthusiastic about collaborating with a legend. Bun B’s principal collaborator on the record is Mississippi beatmaker and rapper Big K.R.I.T., who serves as one of the record’s Executive Producers — the other is Bun’s wife, Queenie — and produced half of its instrumentals. K.R.I.T.’s music, heavy on the same bluesy tones and lush instrumentation that typified Pimp C’s country-rap beats on U.G.K. classics like Ridin’ Dirty, complements Bun’s natural sensibility perfectly (the fact that he’s a vocal doppelganger of the dearly departed Pimp helps, too). Bun sounds energized flowing over K.R.I.T.-produced tracks like “Outta Season” and “Recognize,” and offers some of the best writing of his career on “Blood on the Dash,” introducing moral ambiguity to the guy-gets-pulled-over-by-the-cops story-rap of tracks like Jay Z’s “99 Problems.” When the record does reach out, meanwhile, it never misses — he sounds like the third member of Run the Jewels on the RTJ-featuring “Myself,” and it’s an absolute joy to listen to Bun reference Rakim on “Rudeboi” before sliding into a patois and then ceding the mic to Lil Wayne. It’s easily Bun’s best collection of music in years, perhaps his strongest effort yet as a solo artist.
Rather than playing the game of trying to keep up with evolving trends, on Return of the Trill, Bun instead leans into his roots. There was once a time when a rapper hoping to connect with a vast audience would have to tailor their sound to whatever was getting airtime on national hip-hop radio; the internet, however, has created an environment where hip-hop artists are rewarded for creating cohesive albums that offer a distinct sense of place. In other words, regional rappers no longer have to use the radio to go national, they can use the internet to bring the nation to their region.
Return of the Trill is a tribute to Bun’s hometown of Port Arthur, even down to its title. The word “trill,” Bun told the Texas Observer, originated in Port Arthur as “the term we used... to separate ourselves from the rest of the world.” And these days, Port Arthur is very much in need of a voice. The coastal city has been in economic decline since the 1970’s, and after Hurricane Harvey wiped out four-fifths of Port Arthur’s housing, its population has begun to plummet. “The problem,” Bun said, is that “people would have to go back to the same area they left.” As job prospects in Port Arthur dwindle and the threat of another hurricane remains steady those who left the city “don’t really have much to go back to.”
“I tried to make an album that’s representative of the mentality of people in Port Arthur post-Hurricane Harvey,” he told the Observer. “If people like myself don’t speak up for Port Arthur and the conditions there, then no one will know what’s going on in that small town.”