It's interesting how, in a genre ostensibly rooted in storytelling, rappers like T.I. can endlessly strive for middlebrow success without investing any of their own experience. T.I. is a guy who, in the course of the last three years, has been busted for buying silenced machine pistols from an undercover agent, starred in his own rehabilitation-themed reality show, spent months living in a halfway house, talked a man down from a 22-story building, and recently returned to prison for violating his probation. Yet none of these experiences are likely to ever show up in T.I.'s material beyond a casual reference or offhand boast. The narrative he plies has remained a constant one, steeped in fame and royalty, women and guns.
The gun talk has fundamentally been dropped on No Mercy, a goodwill gesture to preserve a relatively clean image. But the album provides insight into the impermeability of rap's soft center, the pristine, vapid cushion between hardscrabble street narratives and self-conscious dissections of wealth and celebrity. This is the kind of material that, cloaked in ripe hooks and sharp beats, can sustain mediocrity.
Stocked with smart producers and reshuffled tropes, the album buzzes with excitement and relevance even when it's thematically comatose. It's what allows a song like "Amazing" to be catchy and enjoyable, despite the fact that so much about it feels wrong. Produced by the Neptunes, in the mold of a few dozen others, the track is all tweaked elegance and off-kilter percussion. It's also vilely mean-spirited, including an extended tirade that surpasses causal misogyny.
No Mercy is full of these kind of moments, where suspect lyrical passages coast by under smooth surfaces. It might not be a stretch to suggest that T.I. is taking out his newfound powerlessness on women, who receive an inordinate amount of abuse here, were that kind of tough talk not already such a standard element of his stock in trade. Mostly, the album shows that T.I.'s lyrical side is not worthy of much attention. He proves once again that he's not the kind of rapper capable of much insight, his current real-life situation making little difference to the type of music he makes, which remains inertly focused on keeping up appearances.