[8 January 2013]
It’s been an odd if not incredibly taxing six years for Clifford Harris since he released King and laid claim to the throne room of both pop and street rap. T.I. vs. T.I.P. followed just a year later and revealed that T.I.‘s inner conflict between those two personas may have been threatening to get the better of him. In attempting to make a conversational album on which he opened up to his audience about the dichotomy between a street hustler past and a businessman future, T.I. instead dropped a collection of schizophrenic music that felt limp, always afraid of asserting one side of his artistry over the other. At the time it was a popular lesson to learn, however (remember Sasha Fierce?) and so fans weren’t much afraid of Paper Trail, which may have placed all of T.I.‘s bets in the pop realm but at least it carried purpose. By dropping the Jay-Z bravado and returning to pen and paper, T.I. may have remained a dividing light musically but it was hard to ignore his reinvigorated wordplay and self-deprecating subject matter in the wake of some very serious federal weapons charges.
Sadly, that wasn’t the end of T.I.‘s legal kerfuffles, and much of T.I.‘s music since has felt somewhat distracted by his real life, one in which he’s not pretending to be a gangster and yet still struggling to avoid the law like one. After No Mercy was forced into the marketplace by Atlantic prior to T.I.‘s return to prison, fans had to face the facts that for all his technical ability and endearing reality TV programs, the music itself was a far cry from what made T.I. a household name, let alone branded the ubiquitous form of southern gangster rap now referred to as “trap music”. Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head is the Marvin Gaye-alluding attempt to rectify all of these trends with the flirtatious signals of a return to form on the Fuck da City Up mixture, as well as incendiary features on tracks like Killer Mike’s “Big Beast”, Big Boi’s “In the A” and Future’s “Magic (Remix)”. But T.I.‘s been trading in regret for half his career at this point, so it’s fair to be skeptical of his ability to finally do right by that honesty.
As if he’s making up for lost time, Trouble Man starts out as energetic as any of T.I.‘s better albums. With its sample of Gaye’s “Trouble Man” providing a perfect feel to his newly free exuberance, “The Introduction” is unfiltered T.I. at his near-greatest. Next is “G Season”, a Maybach Music banger that stands tall against most of the stuff that’s actually come from that group in 2012, all masculinity and thumps, and then “Trap Back Jumpin’”, a collaboration with longtime partner DJ Toomp that’s not exactly par with Gucci Mane’s similar “Trap Back” from this past summer but does its job well enough until its five minute runtime begins to overwhelm, even as Toomp’s drums continue to intoxicate. Bloated runtime has really come to be a staple of 2012’s second half hip-hop, truthfully, and T.I.‘s caught the bug here as well. About a third of these songs can’t help but drag on and on. Sadly, the worst offender is the six-minute, twelve-second “Can You Learn?”, a song T.I. claims to have had to fight for to include on this album. It’s a turgid R. Kelly collab that finds Tip and Kells asking women if they can learn to love a man who makes mistakes, a well-worn subject in hip-hop that’s handled about as blandly as possible here. And beyond the music, once you start exposing your family life to the media as much as T.I. has, it’s harder to take anything away from a song that’s essentially aimed at groupies and thus—hopefully—entirely false.
Other extended moments are just…long. “Wildside” features ASAP Rocky for no other apparent reason than his name is hot on blogs right now. His Bone Thugs delivery is just a little too robotic here, and feels essentially tacked on since all that follows is a repeat of the chorus and a skit. “Who Want Some?” comes up near the end of the album with another DJ Toomp track that really doesn’t feel too different than “Trap Back Jumpin’” in its aims, except that instead of five minutes long it’s six. “Sorry”, the other so-seeming “epic” features Andre 3000 with the closing verse and as hard as T.I. tried, at the end of the day it’s just four or five spins of the album before you realize you’re almost tuning out until Dre drops. None of these songs are disappointing on their own, but all of them stick around a minute or two longer than you’d probably like and that does end up having a negative effect on what else surrounds them. It’s not enticing to hear “Wonderful Life” hand Akon the lyrics to Elton John’s “Your Song” for half of a five minute track (as tear-jerking as the self-reflective lyrics can be), and adding Pink to the T.I. formula is less shocking than unaffecting, or boring.
All that said, Trouble Man is a pretty satisfying rap album by any standard, let alone the subpar one set by T.I. in recent years. Like many rap artists nearly a decade deep into his career, T.I. is susceptible to a number of small mistakes that add up to endlessly comparing Trouble Man to what our ears fantasize the guy is still capable of. But it’s important to keep yourself aware that all these mistakes are ultimately, mostly, fanatic disappointment. T.I. remains one of the four or five most impressive rappers on a mainstream level, and though his attempts to get introspective can often toe awkwardly close to corniness Trouble Man‘s able to reign that tendency in more than in the past. It’s fun to hear T.I. tackle the T-Minus sound that ruled hip-hop radio in 2012 on “Go Get It” even if it’s not a world beater, and if you’re of a certain mind it’s hard not to look at the autotune-crooning “Cruisin’” as a Turquoise Jeep-like parody of Kirko Bangz’ Drake biting (I mean, the chorus is about panty colors…and it’s absurdly infectious). And if you have your ear to the Atlanta beef scene, then you’re well aware “Addresses” exists solely to light fires under the ass of fellow Atlantic-signee Alley Boy and his Duct Tape mixtape label—it’s good to hear T.I. truly mad again.
Trouble Man‘s not the album you’ll be recommending to less devout followers of the T.I. saga the way you would have King or Trap Muzik, but it’s easily the most satisfying to fans of those albums in a long time. Fans of Paper Trail might could find less to like here - it’s certainly the most angry T.I. music in a long time - but it could still satisfy. More than anything, it’s an acceptable sign that T.I. may be hungry again, even as he threatens to retire following a sequel filled with castoffs sub-titled He Who Wears the Crown. After all T.I.‘s personal life and career has been through the past half-decade, perhaps that’s enough.