When T.I.P. ran his initial campaign in 2003 to be anointed “King of the South,” he made a compelling case with his dismantling of then commercially viable Lil Flip, and his breakout third LP Urban Legend. Met with little resistance, T.I. went on to further build his legacy and become a mainstream star with KING, T.I. vs. T.I.P., and the 2006 film ATL.
With the success came challengers, as rivals began questioning T.I.’s credibility as an artist and his claim of being the South’s premier MC. Now learning that defending the crown is harder than chasing it, T.I. seeks to continue his reign and quiet critics with his sixth studio album Paper Trail (Grand Hustle/Atlantic).
The album begins appropriately with the lyrical dexterity of “56 Bars (Intro).” With regal authority, TIP dissects then dismisses his less talented naysayers without ever having to call out a name. Reunited with the producer that’s crafted his biggest hits, DJ Toomp’s pulsing bass lines fit perfectly with the Bankhead star’s cocksure demeanor; setting a good start for the disc.
That focus continues on their second album collaboration “I’m Illy.” Again in battle mode, T.I. juxtaposes his achievements with a thinly veiled, local Atlanta rapper who aspires to the king’s throne in mind.
For the first time, TIP addresses in detail the events that lead to his gun prosecution on “Ready For Whatever.” Over Drumma Boy’s urgent but sprawling synths, T.I. makes a compelling argument for his need for weapons, explaining the murder of his best friend before his eyes despite the six figures he already pays for security. What makes the track work so well is that TIP is brave enough to leave his Rap persona at the door and reveal the fear that fueled his rash decisions.
The middle half of the album is dominated by a long string of commercial and pop tracks which contribute a mixed bag to the LP. “On Top of the World” features T.I.’s first partnership with former heated rival Ludacris and rising ATL newcomer B.O.B. Instead of a confrontational song, the Atlanta headliners produced a joyous track detailing their many accomplishments. While it works, the collaboration will likely do little to deter the talk of those still wishing for both men to pick up where “Stomp” left off.
The back to back syrupy singles “Live Your Life” and “Whatever You Like” follow next. Smart fans will recognize that these songs are necessary to appeal to the king’s pop constituency, but that doesn’t cancel out that they are commercial fluff that does nothing for the LP.
Danja’s bluesy, organ-tinged musicianship on “No Matter What” gets things back in order with T.I.’s assertions of triumph over his many personal struggles. “Swing Ya Rag” has him in lyrically weaving Swizz Beatz’s signature rhythms into another guaranteed infectious hit in the vein of “Bring ‘Em Out.”
On the all-star collaboration “Swagger Like Us,” Kanye West, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne all make convincing cases why their swagger supersedes all others. While some will undoubtedly find the continued auto-tune effects from Kanye and Wayne clichéd, both men deliver good set up verses for T.I., who in the coveted last spot slightly edges out a clever Jay-Z verse by dismantling the M.I.A. sampling track with a rapid closing succession of consonance-heavy lyrics.
Even with distractions ranging from legal woes to petty and childish territorial “beef,” T.I. has managed to craft an album that gives listeners the standout moments they expect from the Bankhead star. Paper Trail’s achievements are enough to remind fans why they fell in love with T.I. back in 2003, and keep his tenuous title as “King of the South” in place for the immediate future.
“56 Bars (Intro)”
T.I. Featuring Kanye West, Jay-Z, & Lil Wayne
“Swagger Like Us”