Could it be that psychological complexity in rappers has become another tired cliché? Sure, one of the most revolutionary aspects of 2Pac’s music was the way he treated his albums like open-book shrink sessions. But then Marshall Mathers showed up in a video wearing a straitjacket, subsequently selling millions, and since then it’s seemed like nearly every rapper coming out of the gate is trying to present himself as a triple- or quadruple-faced nutjob, the hip-hop equivalent Van Gogh on the cusp of lopping off his left earlobe.
For a while, T.I. was pleasingly sane and easy to read. The ex-dealer from Atlanta rode to stardom on the strength of swaggering, Southern-style synth-and-snares production and his own mellifluously drawling flow. If Lupe Fiasco is a rapper’s rapper, then T.I. has always been a producer’s rapper; he turns each beat he touches into a masterpiece of streetwise sonic wizardry while barely registering a passing grade on the score of lyrical content. But the so-called Jay-Z of the South made a fundamental misstep last year when, on the follow-up to his universally acclaimed King, T.I. became just another bored emcee with pretensions to schizophrenia. T.I. vs T.I.P. was a half-assed concept record in which a supposed battle between two dynamic personalities was really only a mindless exercise in self-absorption weighed down by bad beats. Instead of Atlanta ace DJ Toomp behind the decks and a charming, fearless dopeboy in the booth, we got a Wyclef Jean-scripted argument about the false dichotomy of pop-rap and street-rap. T.I.‘s best work was evidence of how those categories could be transcended, but T.I. vs T.I.P. found him just capitulating to radio sectionalism.
T.I.‘s new record, however, arrives with personal baggage that is not completely manufactured. Namely, the rapper got busted in a big way last fall, when he was caught buying firearms in a sting operation. Because of prior conviction rules, the rapper’s arrest carried especially harsh consequences: After some time living under house arrest and about a thousand hours of community service, T.I. will soon spend about a year in jail, and that’s in addition to significant losses in public esteem and product endorsements. So yeah, we might expect T.I. to have more to rap about than rubber-banded bankrolls and moving squares citywide on his new album, Paper Trail.
The problem is that T.I. is not any more successful as a rapper reeling from controversy than he was as one pleading an insanity defense. “No Matter What” and “Ready for Whatever,” the tracks on Paper Trail that directly confront his legal entanglements, are some of the album’s weakest. Melodrama does not become T.I., and his complex equations of admitting guilt, making excuses and expressing no regrets fall flat. Similarly, the Usher-equipped “My Life, Your Entertainment” is a totally ineffective take on paparazzi intrusion, especially considering that T.I. has hardly crossed over into the realm of tabloid fodder and that the past five months of his life, spent under house arrest, probably wouldn’t be that entertaining to anyone who has ever heard of the cringe-inducing soap opera that is Amy Winehouse.
Luckily, T.I. has retained his sizable production budget on Paper Trail, and for the most part the investments meet with sizable returns. Toomp, inexplicably absent on T.I. vs. T.I.P., is back and in full force here: opening tracks “56 Barz” and “I’m Illy” are vintage T.I., ecstasies of sweltering synth lines, ground-shaking 808 patterns and breathless verbalizing. Just Blaze samples Euro-pop heroes O-Zone’s “Dragostea din Tei” on “Live Your Life,” which features another star turn from Rihanna and could be the album’s best hope for crossover success. The hip-hop summit on “Swagga Like Us,” an M.I.A.-checking blitz that features Lil Wayne, Jay-Z and Kanye West (who also produced), is already one of the most talked about songs of the year, and for good reason. The reunion of T.I. with Justin Timberlake, “Dead and Gone,” may not be on the level of 2006’s earbud orgasm “My Love,” but the track builds a stately disco symphony that fits snugly on the spectrum of JT explorations in between “Cry Me a River” and “What Goes Around…Comes Around.”
Besides the DJ Toomp cuts, which he properly owns, T.I.‘s presence even on the best songs from Paper Trail too often seem like an afterthought. T.I.‘s voice is still one of the best instruments in all of hip-hop, but the vapidity of his words is all the more pronounced after his audience has been waiting so long for him to say something interesting.