Choose Love: 10 Years Of ‘Int’l Players Anthem’

On UGK and Outkast’s 2007 classic, Willie Hutch, and the mysteries of the heart

This is a story that is, perhaps, mostly about Willie Hutch. It is definitely a story that is mostly about sacrifice — a story of giving something to someone else so that they might become briefly whole. In 1970, Motown producer Hal Davis and Motown boss Berry Gordy contacted Dallas, Texas, songwriter Willie Hutch in the middle of the night. A song he had started and sent their way needed to be finished by morning, he was told. Gordy liked the title and thought the arrangement had promise, but told Hutch it needed work, and it needed work immediately. Gordy didn’t want Hutch to work on the song for himself. Though the song, in its final form, could have made Willie Hutch a household name, there was an up-and-coming group of young singers that Motown was attempting to use as a springboard into its ’70s era, to show that its ’60s magic wasn’t yet lost. The group was already three No. 1 hits into its career, and Motown was looking to continue its momentum at any cost. So Hutch stayed up all night working on the song and delivered it to Motown in the morning, where Berry Gordy ordered him to the studio to arrange vocals.

The song was “I’ll Be There” and the group was, of course, The Jackson 5, led by an 11-year-old Michael Jackson. The song became Motown’s biggest hit at the time, and Gordy, impressed with Hutch's work, hired him as a songwriter and producer. Hutch had almost all of the tools: a striking and deeply soulful voice, and an ability to fit the right lyrics to the right music. But, at least in the eyes of his particular Motown era, he didn't have the magnetic star power built into his personality that someone like Marvin or Smokey had. His truest love was craft, and so craft he did. While releasing some songs and albums to moderate success, he spent the ’70s giving the majority of his best work to Motown’s heavy hitters.

One of Hutch’s songs did endure far beyond him, and in a way that was unexpected when he wrote it. The UGK song “International Players Anthem (I Choose You),” released as a single on this day 10 years ago, briefly unearthed the musical legacy of Willie Hutch, and the history that goes with it.

To understand "Int’l Players Anthem," you have to go back to the heyday of the blaxploitation film soundtrack, which was almost a genre unto itself. The films were low-budget and made specifically for black audiences, with plots that generally revolved around someone from the ghetto making good or getting one over on someone white and in power. The most notable soundtracks called in big names — Curtis Mayfield for Superfly, Isaac Hayes for Shaft. But largely, the soundtracks were helmed by gifted middle-of-the-road soul singers. The work was profitable and plentiful, but didn’t always yield many hits, and depending on the film, could be looked down on or seen as a joke.

The Mack was released in 1973. It starred Richard Pryor, just settling into mainstream success, and Max Julien, in what might be his signature role. Its narrative is familiar: A pimp, fresh out of jail, tries to reclaim his power in the midst of a moral battle between good and evil and a physical battle between his cohorts and corrupt white detectives. Everything is high stakes. Death looms and eventually touches down. There is a lesson learned, and the film ends. It is unspectacular, but entertaining — the hallmark of the vast majority of blaxploitation films.

The Mack has a single deeply tender moment: Julien’s character, Goldie, is shown overlooking the water with his love interest, Diane. As horns swell around the scene, and a chorus of harmonizing voices fall in on top of the horns, Goldie’s voice, softer than it is in the rest of the film, cuts in: “Ever since I was 13, my biggest problem has been just to find the right road to that rainbow that everybody talks about. You know, most people get close enough to count the stripes, but they don’t have enough guts to reach out and take that pot of gold.” When Diane asks Goldie what he’s going to do, he responds, “I’m going to take the whole damn thing.”

It’s the film’s greatest moment — it humanizes its central character, shows him as vulnerable and flawed. He’s going to take the whole pot of gold and share it with Diane, because you share what you can with those you choose to love.

The song in the background of that scene is “I Choose You,” by Willie Hutch. The Mack made $3 million at the box office. “I Choose You,” nestled into the soundtrack made entirely by Willie Hutch, never made a dent on the charts.

“Int’l Players Anthem” is a UGK song, yes. But if we must talk about the song, I imagine we must first talk about the verse. The verse cannot be detached from the song, as some guest verses in rap songs can be detached. I am talking, of course, about André 3000's testimony at the beginning of the song.

If the narrative of his career remains as it is now, and it looks like it might, André 3000 will go down as one of the greatest rappers to never release a proper solo album. There are several ways to look at this, but here are two: André’s abilities are so sharp that he has built a catalogue of verses greater than any solo album could ever offer. After all, if one were to compile his guest verses from, say, 2005 until 2016, is that not a tape we would all roll our windows down in winter for? Still, the other way of looking at it is that he’s taken an easier path to MC supremacy than most, stepping in as a designated hitter when he feels like it, and hitting his fair share of home runs before returning to the bench.

But either way you look at it, the ease with which André performed during his run was stunning, over a variety of beats in a variety of eras. His “Int’l Players Anthem” verse wasn’t his first truly great one — he’d had standout verses on Outkast songs for more than a decade before 2007 — but it was the one that changed the André narrative, the one that pushed him into the conversation as one of the greatest rappers of all time. When I ask people who make this claim to show me their math, they point to this verse as the first, glistening example in a long list of verses that followed in coming years. The verse is all at once stunning, well crafted, visual, and genuinely articulated. It plays on the skills André always had as the perfect counterpoint to Big Boi in Outkast. He was the one most likely to gently design the interior of a moment, the one you could count on to be both vulnerable and vicious, sometimes in the same song. To open almost any other song with a verse this good would be unfair. It would, in some cases, render the rest of the song an afterthought.

Yet “Int’l Players Anthem” is not just any song. By 2007, Port Arthur, Texas, legends UGK hadn’t released a proper album in six years, the longest gap in their discography at that point. Shortly after their album Dirty Money was released in 2001, Pimp C was sentenced to prison for a probation violation, and he wasn’t released until 2005. Though UGK were revered as legends, particularly in the South, and though Bun B had found some critical and commercial success with his first solo album, 2005’s Trill, the shift in rap’s sound from the early 2000s to the mid to late 2000s was sharp. Mainstream rap had once again turned to the South, the sample-heavy production that had permeated the mainstream becoming less prominent on the radio in favor of heavy bass-and-drum production. Rappers were also becoming more introspective, in part because they were aging and reckoning with all of the experiences within. Even with these two things working in their favor, after so much time out of the spotlight, in a fast-moving climate, it was hard to see a way for UGK to return to form. Particularly when the first single off of their August 2007 double album, Underground Kingz, “The Game Belongs to Me,” didn’t cause much of a stir.

In the grand conversation of visuals that have propelled a song even beyond the greatness it was likely already destined for, the video for “Int’l Players Anthem” must serve as the greatest example. Set at a fictional wedding for André 3000, the video radiates joy. T-Pain leads a gospel choir in song, as it should be. Fonzworth Bentley, mainstay of mid-2000s rap, is a wedding guest. Members of Goodie Mob are groomsmen. Chamillionaire watches in awe as a fight breaks out at the wedding reception. It is a time capsule of the era, pulling together Southern rap royalty to revel in the fictional send-off of one of their own.

To watch the video now, 10 years later, reaches into a specific corner of nostalgia, taps on the shoulder of anyone who wanted a wedding, or even a party, like this one. “Int’l Players Anthem” is a hell of a song, yes. One of the best I’ve ever heard. It would have likely been a brilliant album cut, even if not for the video. But the video is what made it astronomical, and entirely untouchable. I hear the song anywhere, I close my eyes, and I see roses being thrown.

Underground Kingz was released two months later to commercial and critical success. It was UGK’s first and only No. 1 album. The album's music didn't contain as drastic of a shift in sound as many expected, but it was much more sample-heavy than their earlier efforts. The album utilized samples from Gladys Knight, Benny Latimore, Earth, Wind & Fire, and its most notable sample: On “Int’l Players Anthem,” a song produced by DJ Paul and Juicy J of the Memphis group Three 6 Mafia, there are the familiar horns and rush of voices sewed perfectly underneath the gentle percussion. The song, largely forgotten until that point, was Willie Hutch’s “I Choose You.”

Love, it seems, is a choice. Not falling in love itself, but staying there. Make no mistake, “Int’l Player’s Anthem” is teeming with slightly misguided rap braggadocio, overrunning the plain romance that André's verse might have hinted at. From that beginning to Big Boi’s closing verse, filled with advice in the vein of “you can’t trust these women,” and the two UGK verses in between, the song runs an honest gamut from tender to somewhat treacherous.

In this way, it is an entire musical manipulation of the sample it relies on, in both sound and lyrics. Hutch’s “I Choose You” is a mellow and contemplative ode, bowing to a partner he loves, running down all of the reasons why he’s done with his previous, single ways. It’s a song that, even outside of the scene it anchored in The Mack, is enough to bring emotions to the surface.

“Choose” is, I think, the operative word. It's the word that appears most in both the song and the sample, and the word that gets stretched out the longest by the choir of singing voices, in both the sample and the original song. The choice sung about here, as with many popular songs, is the choice to commit — the choice to go all-in on the feeling of love, but not necessarily to stay there. There aren’t many great soul songs about a love 10 or 20 years in. The feeling we’re all chasing is the blooming and open possibility of the heart, not the mundane and mechanical fixtures of what comes years after.

I fall in love always, and then not again. While on the road, I find a cloud traveling in a direction of the home I know, and I am in love. In a small town, I try the ice cream that everyone travels to the small town for, and I am in love. And, yes, I share a small conversation at a record store with someone who has a record in their hands whose geography we both know, and I am in love and then not.

Chasing the feeling is easier than chasing the reality, and so I chase the feeling until I am bored with that feeling and another is in reach. The feeling of Willie Hutch, the feeling of André 3000: The two are in conversation with each other here, through the two songs. Both of them walk the fine edge of lamentation and celebration, a line that's part of any commitment that exists with the knowing of what is being left behind.

The verse cycle of “Int’l Players Anthem,” beginning with tentative but overwhelming joy and ending with a treatise on distrust and betrayal, seems meant to portray the full arc of a failed relationship. I am less of a cynic now than I was a year ago, or at least I’m working on it. And so, more than anything, I’m thinking about whether the feeling of falling in love — a sustained and eager love — is worth what wreckage might come, if and when the love goes wrong. I know, internally, that I need the answer to keep being yes. Yes, it will always be worth it.

A year after his soundtrack for The Mack, Willie Hutch released the soundtrack to Foxy Brown. It did worse on the charts than its predecessor, despite being arguably musically superior. He soldiered on through the ’70s, adding to his list of Motown collaborations and making albums of gritty and introspective soul music, but none of them really took off. His biggest charting hit was 1975’s “Love Power,” which hit No. 8 on the R&B charts. By the end of the decade, Hutch left Motown, with dwindling success as a songwriter and arranger. He released two albums on Whitfield Records that are largely forgotten, returned to Motown for another album, and, after a few more albums, eventually faded into obscurity altogether.

For someone who takes pleasure in the craft of songwriting, as Hutch did, it was maybe not necessarily tragic for him to see his career dwindle into a memory while the artists he wrote songs for continued as legacy acts or full-blown stars. Hutch, perhaps, entered the game understanding that his personal career aspirations might be sacrificed for the greater good, and I suppose that, too, is a type of insurmountable love. On his final Motown album, 1985’s Making a Game Out of Love, Hutch sounds mostly lost, trying to navigate a funk-pop landscape that's an entire world away from the tender and layered ballads he made his name on. Listening to the album, especially now, it feels like hearing an artist trying to stay afloat in an industry that left him behind.

Willie Hutch moved back home to Texas in 1994. He released a few more albums, but mostly stayed under the radar — perhaps worn out by the years of hustling songs, or perhaps defeated. “Songs live on long after you’ve gone,” he told the Dallas Observer in 1998, seven years before he died at age 60 in Duncanville.

It is nearly five hours on Interstate 45 from Dallas to Port Arthur, four and a half if you’re flying and miss the Houston traffic. It feels unfair to talk about lineage only in terms of ghosts. Still, I think about that Willie Hutch interview, about songs living beyond the body, and think of how the true gift of a songwriter is knowing what of themselves they can sacrifice in the name of becoming timeless. I think of Willie Hutch, dying in Texas and being reborn again in Memphis, and repurposed by a pair of Texas rappers who were desperate for a hit.

Nothing is forgettable until those who come after it choose to forget. Which, I think, is why falling in love is an easier task than choosing to live a life in love. The idea of memory: each small heartbreak riddled with its own particular set of ghosts. Still, Willie Hutch only wrote love songs for nearly three whole decades, and I’d like to imagine he never stopped believing every single one of them.

On the day Pimp C died, “Int’l Players Anthem” was still in heavy rotation. I heard it on my walk to my office job that morning, the familiar bass line that I had become intimate with rattling the trunk of a car with its windows up and steam billowing from the exhaust pipe. It was December 4, 2007, exactly four months to the day after the video’s release. He died in a hotel room in Los Angeles, only 33 years old. It seemed especially jarring because of UGK’s latest triumph. Underground Kingz had gone gold, and it was the most critically celebrated album in their already celebrated catalogue. It felt like a win for the good guys — a group that grinded for years in the Southern underground, ahead of their time, finding an era that fit them perfectly. And then it was over.

No one in the “Int’l Players Anthem” music video is dressed more for the occasion than Pimp C. Decked out in all white, a massive white fur hat adorning his head to match the floor-length fur cloaking his body, he seems almost comically dressed, even in comparison to the lime greens and pastels that pepper the video’s aesthetics. But that is who Pimp C was. In any room, he was the largest and loudest, often dressed 10 times more extravagantly than the next best-dressed person. Bun B might have been the better technician of UGK, but it was Pimp C who provided the too-outrageous-to-be-true narratives and witty punch lines to balance him out.

Within the vast and storied work of UGK, “Int’l Players Anthem,” while a highlight, isn’t the whole of it. Still, it is a rap song that I hear both at weddings and on breakup playlists. When it comes on, anywhere, all my pals rap the first verse, and then maybe the second if they haven’t had too many drinks. It’s one of those songs — rap as the great unifier, pulling a night open with its bare hands and giving the people some memory to sing along to as a star to pull them home. Maybe to someone who has chosen to love them, or maybe to a room where they can choose to fall in love, again, with themselves.

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