From time to time, a Slate staffer or critic offers up a favorite cultural pick for Procrastinate Better readers. Today’s endorsement is from pop critic Jonah Weiner.
Last Tuesday, Houston rap veteran Bun-B released his third solo album, Trill O.G . It has been right at the top of my to-listen queue since it came out but includes one song I already know and love, ” Let ‘Em Know ,” which I’ve listened to at least 30 times since it leaked online last month. The song unites Bun-B for the first time with another hip-hop veteran, the producer DJ Premier, who made the music for songs by Jay-Z, the Notorious BIG, and Nas, among other early-’90s East Coast titans. The dusty, horn-rich soul samples and cracking snares one associates with that period were the bedrock of DJ Premier’s sound.
They still are, it turns out: “Let ‘Em Know” essentially consists of a repeated loop of one sustained note that does a slight upward climb every other bar or so. I think it’s a string sample, but it’s slowed down to the point that I can’t say for sure it’s not a horn. Not much happens in the music, and yet the minimal melody engrosses and moves me, oscillating as it does from stoic to sorrowful. Part of the emotional charge here involves the poignantly symmetrical pairing of Bun-B and Premier: The former quietly became a legend over the past 20 years as one-half of the duo UGK, alongside friend Pimp C; the latter was one-half of the duo Gang Starr, formed with his friend Guru. Pimp C passed away in 2007, and Guru died earlier this year. Those losses are barely mentioned, but they hang over the track, alluded to in a few scratched-in vocal samples of the deceased that take on a spectral aspect, ghosts speaking through the turntables.
Bun sounds especially at home over a Premier beat, because there’s an earnest, precisely articulated, taking-these-chumps-to-school quality to his delivery that Guru had, too. At 37, Bun is no fogey, but he’s older than a lot of rap whippersnappers out there, and he spends much of the track keeping those whippersnappers in check. During the second verse, he dresses down a kid in gangsta’s clothing with a no-frills attack: “You the type that gotta call in the goons/ I come one deep, strapped like an army platoon.”
I love the image — pure fantasy — of Bun-B entering some mismatched shootout with ammunition belts crisscrossing his chest, grenades dangling from his clothes, some 50-pound cannon in each hand. Elsewhere in the song Bun compares himself to Leonidas, “gladiating.” Here, he also reminds me of Tennyson’s Ulysses, an aging warrior headed back out onto the battlefield he just can’t quit.