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Dean Van Nguyen got the killer flow, call it lyrical felony.
There’s a relatively recent narrative that somehow escaped into the hip-hop ether and has been allowed to roam unchecked for too long. It states that Bun B, the fire-lunged Texas legend, is only half a great rap artist. It’s a cheap and lazy reading of history that’s easy to push whenever Bun drops a solo project that fails to live up to the classics he cut alongside Pimp C, his UGK partner in crime.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that these Houston comrades were forged to make music together—Bun’s gruff flow offered the ideal counterpoint to Pimp’s loose, funky drawl. But Bernard Freeman would have been a five-star spitter even if he’d never become acquainted with Chad Butler. His grizzled presence on the mic is one of the classic instruments of Southern rap lore. He’s a hook machine with enough self-confidence to stare down the Airbus A380.
If solo Bun has a weakness, it’s been his brave but often misguided willingness to jump on as many contemporary styles as possible. Take Trill O.G., from 2010, an album that featured some of Bun’s most glorious moments—the mean stomp of “I Git Down For Mine”; the dusty boom-bap bliss of the DJ Premier-assisted “Let Em Know”—opens with J Prince claiming it was his son who discovered Drake. Later, we get an appearance from Drizzy himself, the antithesis of trill. (Oddly, Trill O.G. picked up a five-mic review from The Source, something you could put in the magazine’s obituary as Exhibit A of its decline.)
Even so, there’s always been the sense that a few slugs to the system and he could cut a full-length worthy of his undeniable legacy. So it’s with great ceremony, then, that we can welcome Return of the Trill, a record that eradicates the weak and awkward bits that have held back Bun’s other solo records. It revels in the dirty-dirty, third-coast, muddy-watered sound that he made his name on, while successfully welding a handful of new components to his machine. Bun’s rapping, of course, is heavy and assertive, backed up by some of the strongest writing of his career. And though the back-to-basics approach is key to its success, Return of the Trill doesn’t sound like a straight piece of retro revivalism. Put it this way: if T.I. had made this joint, nobody would be calling it a 1990s throwback.
If nothing else, Return of the Trill offers one vital lesson: always make sure you hire the right assistant coach. On paper, Bun’s teaming with Big K.R.I.T. makes such good sense, his recruitment to the role of executive producer and chief beatmaker sounds almost boring. The Mississippi rapper’s schtick is his loyalty to his regional roots—the raw, bluesy musicality of his beats has always honored Pimp C’s cherished production style. It suggests a Safety First approach from Bun and not a daring swing for the fences. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. To be clear, K.R.I.T. does not try to cast himself in the role Pimp once filled in UGK–he’s not deluded enough to think he can wear Chad’s fur coat. Instead, like a good man behind the music, his beats and overall presence tease out the best in Bun.
Why didn’t Justin Scott become a rap star? I revisited the now 32-year-old K.R.I.T.’s beautiful 2010-2012 run (the music that netted him a deal with Def Jam) and can happily report that it holds up. But the man who bets it all on nostalgia is often doomed to fail. Here’s a guy once tipped for stardom now tasking himself with re-energizing a Southern hero whom his own career draws from so heavily. The marriage instantly succeeds on opener “Trill Over Everything,” as K.R.I.T. strips his sound back to the barest elements—rattling hi-hats, grimy organ chords, nimble guitar licks. Bun raps about cars, jewels, and his sneakers. This is Port Arthur when it sizzles.
Given Bun’s sonic experiments have in the past been spotty, it’s a joy to find some of the more left-field material here finding the pocket. The thought of Bun on a reggae-style joint like “Rudeboi” brings back Snoop Lion fever dreams, but his comfort sliding into a kind 0f half-formed Jamaican patois is fun, effective, and easily sees him outstrip his guest, Lil’ Wayne. The rumbling electronics of “Myself” finds Bun stepping into Run The Jewels’ arena and not vice versa. He even mirrors Killer Mike’s rapid rap style, offering evidence, should anyone need to ask, of his fluidity on the mic.
Most surprising is the subject matter of “Blood On The Dash,” which sees Bun take on the role of a jittery rookie cop on a traffic stop. There’s been a wealth of great rap songs cut in the last few years on police brutality but this may be the first to switch the lens over to viewpoint of the cop: “What if he’s a killer cop like I’ve seen on the news?” raps Bun. “Should I shoot his ass first? Goddamn, I’m confused.” The tale ends on a cliffhanger, leaving listeners to fill in the potentially tragic blanks themselves. Bun has never sought nor been bestowed with the conscious prophet status of some of his 1990s peers, but his ability to crack into a potentially divisive topic here exhibits the kind of lateral deep-thinking of the most trenchant storytellers.
There are some flaws to Return of the Trill, the most blindingly obvious of which is “Traphandz,” a track that urges its crowd to slap their paws together in time. It’s as though Bun is trying to kick start a new dance trend–and Bun is the last person to be trying to kick start a new dance trend. The guest list too yields mixed results. Canonical selections like T.I., Slim Thug and 8 Ball & MJG acquit themselves well. Meanwhile, 2 Chainz raps about Benihana on the nonredeemable “Traphandz”; “Never Going Back” is a solid song that ignores the fact that Giggs is a grime artist, rendering the experiment redundant.
Even with its flaws, there’s an effortlessness to the whole project, a brevity that suggests Bun has stopped chasing spirits he’ll never catch. It’s why the cuts that appear to be least ambitious—“Outta Season,” a melodic, blues guitar-led number, and “Slow It Down,” a saxophone-laden weed jam—are among the most enjoyable, capturing the ease of Bun’s bravado. Sometimes autopilot offers the smoothest ride. It’s an old lesson in album making: if you want to make a classic, stop trying to make a classic. Call it a return to form if you want to be trite, Return of the Trill just confirms what was always evidence: Bun B is a champion of the South with a title belt that can never be wrangled from his grip.