This is not the first time T.I. has found himself with his back against the wall. After his first record failed to garner national attention and corresponding record sales, T.I. was dropped from his Ghett-O-Vision label (a LaFace imprint). Trap Muzik saw T.I. fighting just to belong. The album, the first on his own Grand Hustle imprint (Atlantic Records), was his best record to date. Spawning the underground anthem “24’s” and the crossover smash “Rubberband Man,” Trap Muzik not only solidified T.I. as a fixture in southern rap, it defined an entire aesthetic. The definitive “trap” record, Trap Muzik still resonates on the pop and hip-hop charts, creating a blueprint that artists like Young Jeezy and Rick Ross still follow.
Fast-forward five years and T.I. is no longer fighting to find his way in the music business, instead he is fighting to still be relevant a year from now. After pleading guilty to gun charges, T.I. had enough time to record an album before reporting to federal prison. And just like in Trap Muzik, Paper Trail finds adversity bringing out the best in “the king of the South.”
Astoundingly more focused than 2007’s scattershot T.I. vs T.I.P., Paper Trail sees “Tip” addressing two topics: his impending incarceration and the costs (and comforts) of celebrity. There are tangents — the feel-good “On Top of the World” with rap-foe-turned-friend Ludacris, the awkward “Whatever You Like,” and the aptly titled “Porn Star” — but none of these songs detract from the album’s “this too shall pass” theme. Even the indirect shots T.I. takes at rival Shawty Lo (“I set the standard in Atlanta for how to get, get, get it!”) are offset by T.I.’s awareness that he has larger concerns (“Ali say ‘Even the greatest gotta suffer sometimes.'”)
Poet laureate Nikki Giovanni writes hauntingly of 2Pac’s assertion that he and Mike Tyson “would never be free at the same time.” More than the inevitable dimming of Tyson’s ring dominance or the mysterious events surrounding his death, it was ‘Pac’s articulation of his own struggles with being young, rich, and black that has made him an icon among the black nouveaux riche. Throughout the album T.I. invokes 2Pac’s name, but on “Ready for Whatever,” where he alludes to the fact that he and Michael Vick will soon both be in prison, T.I. comes closest to capturing the spirit of his slain idol. As he raps “Now either die or go to jail / That’s a hell of a decision / But I’m wrong and I know it / My excuses: unimportant / I’m just trying to let you know / That I ain’t think I had a choice,” T.I. summons what defined 2Pac at his best: the ability to critique a flawed socio-political and economic system while unashamedly acknowledging his role in it.
Sonically the tracks blend together masterfully, forming a symphony of synthesizers and double-time drum patterns augmented by arresting samples, blues-out riffs, and catchy guest vocal spots. “Live Your Life” featuring Rihanna and possible song of the year “Swagger Like Us” featuring Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Lil’ Wayne are prime examples of how to make gangsta-rap pop anthems. The comparatively sparse “No Matter What” and “Dead and Gone” (apparently inspired by Lupe Fiasco’s work with Matthew Santos) provide welcome contrasts to overwhelmingly electronic vibe. Despite the impressive list of guest stars and busy production, T.I. makes the album his own, placing his lyrical stamp on every song.
Paper Trail should finally cement DJ Toomp, the album’s central maestro, as a one of the new “it” producers among rap and pop listeners. While most classic albums help define the aural aesthetic of their period, Paper Trail’s instrumentation opts to try to capture the best of the contemporary scene. Yet what it lacks in innovation it accounts for in execution. Merging the chant-worthy choruses from 2006’s King with the sharp wordplay of Trap Muzik and Urban Legend, Paper Trail will undoubtedly produce a handful of singles, yet it still sounds better when experienced as an entire album. Even the few songs that diverge from the album’s conceptual focus sound good when listened to separately.
On the wistful “You Ain’t Missin’ Nothing” T.I. tells his friends behind bars to stay focused on the better days ahead of them. If he can heed his own advice, we may all be treated to another T.I. album as sincere and enjoyable as Paper Trail soon enough.
Atlantic Records: www.atlanticrecords.com