No Mercy bursts out of the gate with a castoff from the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sessions. “Welcome to the World” carries all the intentions of an introductory track, but feels more like a mid-sprint detour. It’s something that keeps coming back to me as I listen to this album over and over, because only T.I. vs. T.I.P. has sunk as low as No Mercy does in terms of depth and sequencing. While peaks and valleys can be used in a positive sense, the way Tip’s offering here dips in and out of quality seems much too violent for most longtime followers to keep up with. There are references to making terrible choices personally, which is fine, but as a musician one assumes a certain responsibility to avoid those professional pitfalls as well.
T.I. rarely takes that road here. He references spousal abuse on a song featuring Chris Brown with little regard for the actual context, and balances faceless celebration against equally faceless regret. The way the album opener alludes to Kanye’s opus, then, rings more true as a curse than a gift. Despite constant allusions to the same sort of pain Kanye addressed on that album and in his guest verse here, T.I. so often feels like a puppet manipulated into public acceptance on No Mercy that it’s almost embarrassing to listen to.
“Get Back Up”, the Chris Brown-featuring snoozefest, is a perfect example. Pharrell’s Neptunes provide a beat that barely passes for mixtape fodder while T.I. spits empty bullshit about overcoming obstacles. The track, like “That’s All She Wrote”, “Castle Walls”, and “How Life Changed”, is heartfelt, supposedly. But it also feels like a hip-hop version of late-period Phil Collins, a sort of end so inoffensive and far removed from the life force of hip-hop as to appear a sick joke. It doesn’t help that the production aesthetic mostly adheres to a dull collection of synthesized 808s and staccato piano keys. I defy you to explain the differences between the skeletons of “Welcome to the World” and “I Can’t Help It”. Speaking of which, the hooks on this album are consistently disastrous, whether it’s Rocko and KiD CuDi’s tuneless moaning or the more sabotage-like efforts of Pharrell on “Amazing”. Chris Brown and Christina Aguilera play their parts decently, though it has more to do with their utter lack of personality on their given tracks than musical talent.
T.I. certainly has the legal trouble to fall back on as an excuse. Who’s to say the label didn’t have a strong hand in No Mercy, mixing and matching beats and vocals until a seemingly mainstream-ready release materialized? It’s hard to put everything on Tip’s shoulders. But this is the album originally titled King Uncaged and slated for a late-fall release, so it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t a bevy of finished product to choose from here. The excuse only works so far. Additionally, T.I.’s flow often feels unimpinged, a ceaseless barrage of syllables and southernness. But like Eminem (featured on “All She Wrote”), the problem is T.I.’s technical immaculateness is hollowed by a lack of empathy, a lack of reason to believe. T.I. tells me things and, despite my many complaints about his methods, I find a certain comfort in hearing him deliver them to me. He has that certain knack.
The problem is, as he heads back to jail for another 11 months, it remains to be seen whether he can translate that comfort level into memorable songs. Where he once seemed an indomitable tyrant of left-field radio hits (“Rubberband Man”, “What You Know?”), T.I. is now reduced to the guy that lets The-Dream and Tricky Stewart exercise their Evanescence indulgences on the title track. In a sense it’s still surprising, but more frankly it’s just disappointing. The electricity that defined T.I.’s early career — dexterous lyricism molded effortlessly to trap rap essentials — feels further away than ever before. King? At this point, Tip’s no better than a Jester.