The artist with the No. 1 album in the country is going to prison.
Billboard confirmed Wednesday that rapper T.I., scheduled in a few months to begin serving a one-year prison term for gun possession, has scored his third straight chart-topper. The Atlanta rapper’s sixth album, “Paper Trail” (Grand Hustle/ Atlantic), sold 568,000 copies in the last week. He also has the nation’s No. 1 single, “Live Your Life.” (With 217,000 copies, Jennifer Hudson’s self-titled Arista/RMG debut lands at No. 2 on The Billboard 200.) It’s the latest high in a year, and a career, that has also seen plenty of lows. T.I., born Clifford Harris Jr. 28 years ago in Atlanta, was a drug dealer who transformed himself into a best-selling rapper and movie star.
But last year T.I. was arrested for buying machine guns and silencers. After paying a $100,000 fine and doing community service, he will begin serving a one-year term in 2009.
All of which has been prime fodder for his career as one of the best-selling rappers ever to emerge from Atlanta and the “Dirty South” of ghetto misadventure. Much of “Paper Trail” was recorded under unique circumstances - while its maker was under house arrest awaiting trial.
With its cocky, drawling celebrations of his prowess as an indestructible anti-hero, “Paper Trail” is a far more commercial work than his more introspective 2007 release, “T.I. vs. T.I.P.”
But it also addresses - and admittedly exploits - his real-life legal troubles.
“You watch it, I live it ... go grab some popcorn,” T.I. cackles on “My Life Your Entertainment.” Spoken like a man who’s about to star in his own MTV reality show.
No wonder it’s much easier to buy T.I. as an entertainer, a rapper who crafts catchy singles for the pop market, than it is T.I. as a philosopher with Deep Thoughts about reforming his personal life.
“I’m Illy” reaffirms his sound: a slow, grinding, drawling chest-beater with a touch of anger, watered down by recycled rhymes about stacking “cash like the U.S. Treasury.” There’s plenty more filler, most egregiously a no-brainer called “Porn Star” that sounds like it was dashed off in the men’s room at a strip club.
More disappointing is “Ready for Whatever,” which offers a long-winded and somewhat defensive explanation for his arrest.
The short version: He’s guilty, but he’s not sorry. Something about not judging him until you walk a mile in his shoes. In this political season of never directly answering a question, T.I. equivocates with the best of them.
But a healthy portion of the album should at least keep T.I. on the pop charts while he’s locked away. “Paper Chase” ranks as T.I.‘s most accomplished grab for pop-crossover success, never more blatant than on “Live Your Life,” which incorporates the beyond-silly hook from the “Numa Numa” YouTube hit.
Far better is “Swagga Like Us,” with Kanye West, Jay-Z and the ubiquitous Lil Wayne swapping verses with gold chains swinging to a martial beat and a chorus that borrows from M.I.A.‘s “Paper Planes.”
Ludacris adds his live-for-today mirth, complete with pitch-perfect shout-out to actor Samuel L. Jackson, to “On Top of the World.” And John Legend adds a smooth R&B hook to “Slide Show.”
Tucked in the middle of the album, T.I. stands defiant over the swirling, bluesy backdrop of “No Matter What.” He speaks in the language of a boxer who refuses to let his guard down. But on “Dead and Gone,” the gloves finally drop. The track caps the album with T.I. vowing to leave his gangsta life behind for good, over a dramatic strings-and-piano arrangement punctuated by Justin Timberlake’s melancholy chorus.
From the opening bravado of “I’m Illy,” it’s a long journey to the somber reflection of this track. But the vulnerability is probably just another pose. T.I., after all, realizes that even the most difficult realities can be repackaged on albums that go No. 1.