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Bun B - Return of the Trill Music Album Reviews

On his first solo album that exists not because he’s in the habit of making records but because he has something to say, the UGK cofounder finally sounds confident by himself.

In the decade since the death of Bun B’s UGK partner and best friend, Pimp C, hip-hop’s A-list has handled him like a widowed, respected elder. They sat Shiva with him to share his grief, subsequently turning out in droves for his solo projects and to memorialize Pimp C and preach UGK’s greatness. But they never spoke what many must have thought: Creatively, Bun B’s best years were almost certainly behind him. From their dueling temperaments to the way Pimp’s wily sneer complemented Bun’s bassy rumble, the two had been perfectly matched. Nothing could replace that chemistry.

It’s a testament to Bun B’s herculean presence and the enduring appeal of UGK’s woozy country-rap that his solo records have been so solid. Still, by the early ’10s, even he was losing interest. “Trying to do music after Pimp C passed away was not necessarily hard to do, but I didn’t really enjoy it,” he admitted. Bun B’s 2013 album, Trill O.G.: The Epilogue, ended with a song titled “Bye!” He soon reduced his torrent of guest features to a trickle and settled into a new job teaching a hip-hop course at Houston’s Rice University. He seemed ready, if not for retirement, then at least the next stage of his career.

What a difference a sabbatical can make. Return of the Trill is Bun B’s first project in five years and his first solo album that exists not because he’s in the habit of making records, but because he has something worth saying. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey decimated his Texas hometown of Port Arthur, a refinery city struggling even before the storm flooded its businesses. “I tried to make an album that’s representative of the mentality of people in Port Arthur post-Hurricane Harvey, and really after any kind of traumatic experience,” he told The Texas Observer. “No matter what happens, you’ve gotta bounce back.” His verses don’t address the storm directly, but if any rapper is qualified to speak on regrouping after tragedy, it’s Bun B.

Throughout Return, Bun mounts a spirited case for continued relevance while preaching resilience, the importance of acting your age, and, as ever, the satisfaction of a well-maintained car. Perhaps all that time on a college campus rubbed off, too, as he engages with politics more than ever. “They don’t care about the cure/They just wanna sell a treatment,” he raps on On “U A Bitch,” an indictment of the prison-industrial complex and big pharma. “Keep you alive while keepin’ you high/Now that’s some street shit.”

Most surprising of all is “Blood on the Dash,” possibly the most sympathetic depiction of law enforcement ever recorded by a marquee rapper. Bun narrates a traffic stop from the perspective of both a pistol-toting driver who has been pulled over and the officer, characterized not as a trigger-happy racist but an idealist who joined the force out of concern for his community. He’s planning on letting the driver off with a warning until he sees him reach under his seat. Neither wants to use their firearm, but both have reason for mistrust. “What if he’s a killer cop like I’ve seen on the news?” the driver worries as he considers his options, all shitty.

Bun is less beholden to the help of gracious A-listers this time around. Instead, he surrounds himself with artists who fit naturally inside his orbit, mostly fellow Southern-rap veterans too far removed from their 20s to care about trends, emcees like Slim Thug, Killa Kyleon, and 8Ball & MJG. Fellow icons of middle-aged hardness Run the Jewels join for “Myself,” and Bun sounds every bit at home over El-P’s ’80s action-movie synths as Killer Mike.

Credit executive producer Big K.R.I.T. for making Return of the Trill hold together. In K.R.I.T., who directly produced half of these tracks, Bun has found a cheerleader and UGK disciple who’s fully internalized Pimp C’s playbook, from the bubbling bass to the churchy organs. And while K.R.I.T. isn’t the first rap producer to recruit bluesman Gary Clark Jr., he becomes the first to put him alongside soul singer Leon Bridges. An elegant Pimp C eulogy, their “Gone Away” ends Return on a graceful note of remorseful guitar and tender horns. Pimp C’s memory looms over this record, not his absence. Bun B never wanted to be a solo artist, but he’s never sounded more comfortable in the role.

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