Reviews: International Players Anthem by UGK

International Players Anthem is a rap song about getting married, or at least choosing one woman, for marriage or for other things. It represented the death knell for the condescension that had been aimed at southern rap since southern rap became a thing.

“International Players Anthem” was a southern rap legend event song. It was a UGK record, and UGK is the greatest Texas rap group of all time. It had guest verses from Outkast, and Outkast is the greatest Atlanta rap group of all time. 

And it was produced by Three 6 Mafia, the greatest Tennessee rap group of all time. It was not specifically a celebration of the South, but it certainly felt like that, and still feels like that. It still feels like the moment when the South began to shake free of the caricature it’d been portrayed as.

Let’s make two arguments here, and maybe they’re wrong, but they’re probably not. Before we get there, though, here is some information that will be helpful:

#1. For the rest of this passage, I’m going to use the phrase “the South” to mean “rappers and people in the rap industry who are from southern states.” It’s almost always a bad idea to write roundly like that. And the characters who constitute “the South” certainly don’t operate as a singularity. But this particular instance calls for that kind of grouping. 

#2. Bane is a bad-guy character from Batman. He’s been in the comics and in a video game and even cartoons, too, but when he’s mentioned here it’s in reference to when Tom Hardy played him in The Dark Knight Rises in 2012.

Now we can start:

For its first two decades, rap in the South existed as its own entity. The focus on the genre bounced from coast to coast and back again as it settled into itself, just out of reach of Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, and the other states in between. The South was trying to participate, but it wasn’t being engaged by anyone from outside its borders, and a lot of times it was actively being ignored, or pickled. 

Picture kids playing Monkey in the Middle. It was like that, except instead of a ball it was rap, and instead of kids playing it was rappers, and instead of a game it was the game, and instead of being it you weren’t it and that was the problem, and so maybe not like Monkey in the Middle after all. But, you get it.

This was happening, and the South could see that it was happening, so it did what it was forced to do: adapt. There were few-to-no major label record deals to be had, so rappers in the South created their own record labels and gave themselves their own deals. They booked their own smaller tours throughout the area and learned to generate a fan base out of nothingness. 

They brokered relationships with small distributors and basically sold their tapes one by one wherever they could. 

They figured out how to brand themselves (style of dress, of talking, of production), even if they weren’t aware all the time that that’s what they were doing. All of that was happening in the South all the time, and so it grew into its own kind of self-sustaining biosphere, containing its own regional stars and regional millionaires. UGK, Three 6 Mafia, Outkast, Master P and the No Limit label, the Cash Money family, etc.—their popularity didn’t instantly stretch across the United States on the back of MTV like how the New Yorkers’ popularity and the Californians’ popularity had, but it didn’t have to. 

Their importance was slow-cooked, but unquestioned, and that’s just as impactful. Think on it like this: Each of Ja Rule’s first four albums went platinum. JEFFREY ATKINS HAS FOUR PLATINUM ALBUMS. Do you know how many platinum albums UGK has? Zero. But nobody’s cared about Ja since 50 Cent shoved him into a burial plot in 2003. Bun B remains a hero, and Pimp C, who died in 2007, remains a hero, too.

That’s a Photoshopped version of the story, but it’s a version of the story nonetheless. So here are the two arguments, and they’re both about how the South was able to slide into dominance:

#1. When the Internet began to flex its grip on the music industry, when the guaranteed platinum and gold plaques weren’t so guaranteed anymore, when album sales began to crater after 2004, it had a minimal effect on the southern rappers (or, at the very least, it had less of an effect). The South had (literally) operated out of the trunk of a Cadillac for so long that it felt natural to have to do it when that (metaphorically) became the way it had to be done. The southern rappers had accidentally prepared for that exact scenario. There’s a scene in The Dark Knight Rises where Bane and Batman are fighting in the sewer and Batman is getting housed so he cuts the lights off to try to gain an advantage. But Bane is unfazed. He’d been raised in a lightless prison pit, he tells Batman. “You think darkness is your ally?” he asks. “You merely adopted the dark. I was born into it.” Then he grabs Batman by the neck and pummels him some more. That’s not an exact metaphor for this situation, but it’s pretty close.

#2. The best iteration of rap is the self-aware one (or the self-reflective one). That’s why gangsta rap was crucial early on (it drew from the crack plague), and G-Funk (it drew from the tempering and normalization of inner-city strife), and big-money music (it drew from rap’s own success), etc. So when sales turned downward, the way rap music sounded, and the way it was going to sound, changed direction as well. It aimed more toward locality, toward music identities that could be extended outward without being homogenized. The Internet fragmented rap’s landscape. It made it easier for a sound specific to an area—like drill music in Chicago, or Chopped and Screwed music in Houston, or club music in Baltimore— to not just be confined to that area. Subgenres of subgenres became nourished and vetted. There was still success to be found sounding like someone else had sounded, but there was iconography to be had sounding like something that’d not been heard en masse yet. The South had accidentally prepared for that exact scenario, too.

Beyond the cultural implications and relevancy, “International Players Anthem” is just an amazingly constructed song. There were eleven songs that came before it that also sampled Willie Hutch’s “I Choose You” but none as effectively. Andre 3000’s verse, the way it lies in the grass at the beginning of the song, we have to get the original copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, rip it out of the frame, then replace it with his verse, because it’s real and true art. 

The two snare snaps that happen right before Pimp C’s verse, we have to take those two snare snaps and vote them president of the United States. The claps that happen during Bun B’s verse, we have to teach all the children that because that’s the new currency. Big Boi’s rubbery coo, put it in a time capsule and bury it for a billion years because we’re not ready for anything that buttery and soothing.

And then there’s the video that came with it.

Pimp C’s fur coat and hat…Andre’s kilt…the premarriage mini roast…Bishop Don Magic Juan kissing a white woman…

The Source today isn’t what The Source was in 1995. In 1995, it was operating as a premier publication. It was top notch, a true tastemaker magazine that could semi-seriously be referred to as the hip-hop bible, a nickname they gave themselves. So when they held their awards show in New York that year, it was a very large event and (almost3) all of the very important people were there.

Outkast, who’d released the trenchant Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik the year before, won the award for Best New Artist, as well they should have. And that maybe doesn’t sound strange or eventful right now because we are far enough removed from that time period, but consider this: The Source Awards gave out sixteen awards that night. Fourteen of them went to someone who was from either New York or California. The fifteenth was an award for Soundtrack of the Year, so a single person couldn’t win that. But even there, the winner was the soundtrack for Above the Rim, a movie that had been filmed in New York. And if the subtext wasn’t clear enough, what followed was.

As Big Boi and Andre 3000 walked up onstage, they were booed loudly. It was rough and unfair and representative of the way the South had been treated by rap up until (and then well beyond) that point. But it provided an opportunity. And Andre’s response was indicative of the way the South would respond from that moment forward.

Big Boi offered the setup. “So what’s up, Dre?” he asked. Andre, twenty years old and suddenly standing in front of an arena filled with rap stars, slid in front of the mic, his dashiki looking very much like a war flag, and, after a moment to gather himself, swaggered: “The South got somethin’ to say, that’s all I got to say,” and then he stomped away. It was so beautiful, and his defiance was a place marker. “It finally gave—clear-cut—an incision from New York wannabe-ism,” said Killer Mike, another respected Atlanta rapper. “It was a great thing that they were handled in that way because it finally cut the umbilical cord, saying, ‘We don’t have to impress you. We don’t have to be influenced by you in the same creative way. We’re gonna show you.’”

“International Players Anthem” came fifteen years after UGK’s first album, Too Hard to Swallow (1992), thirteen years after Outkast’s first album in 1994, and twelve years after Three 6 Mafia’s Mystic Stylez came out in 1995. It was nominated for a Grammy, picked the tenth-best song of the year by Rolling Stone, and one of the 500 best songs of the decade by Pitchfork. These are the rap artists who had albums that topped Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart the same years these groups made their debuts:

1992: Kris Kross (Totally Krossed Out), Das EFX (Dead Serious), Ice Cube (The Predator). Only Ice Cube was still a force in 2007.

1994: Snoop Dogg (Doggystyle), Heavy D (Nuttin’ But Love), Warren G (Regulate . . . G Funk Era), Da Brat (Funkdafied), MC Eiht (We Come Strapped), Method Man (Tical), Redman (Dare Iz A Darkside). Only Snoop maintained his level of stardom.

1995: Too Short (Cocktails), DJ Quik (Safe + Sound), Tupac (Me Against the World), Naughty By Nature (Poverty’s Paradise), Luniz (Operation Stackola), Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (E. 1999 Eternal), Kool G Rap (4, 5, 6), AZ (Doe or Die), Tha Dogg Pound (Dogg Food). Tupac was Tupac, and Too Short is a folk hero, but that’s it from this list.

Fifteen years after their debut, UGK proved that they—and ipso facto southern music—were as relevant as they had ever been, if not more so, and probably more so.

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