This is the best hip-hop album of the year, as far as I can hear, and that is quite an accomplishment in a year full of innovation (Bubba Sparxxx) and intelligent self-examination (Lyrics Born) and passion (Killer Mike). But T.I. is also innovative and passionate and examines his life and his past intelligently, and does it all in the context of Atlanta gangsta rap -- a genre that I've been guilty of underestimating, by the way, and that's not going to happen anymore.
Plus, his rhymes are just tighter than anyone else's, and his choruses and hooks are more memorable than anyone else's. And that means a lot.
Let's talk terminology first. T.I. used to call himself T.I.P. back in the day, before he got signed and the label was worried that he was going to be confused with Q-Tip, so he became T.I. and released an album that went nowhere despite being produced by the Neptunes. But his skill as a songwriter hadn't gone unnoticed, and he's made some big fat money from writing songs for others, including a bunch of stuff on Bow Wow's record, and now he has a big mansion in the suburbs. That's one. Also: "The Trap" is the drug spot where he and his friends used to sling rock and weed and everything else that they could sell. Sometimes, these friends are called "Dope Boys". These terms will all come in handy later.
So when the record opens with the title track (isn't that how all records should open, really?), and T.I. starts out talking like he's still back in The Trap ("All you rap niggaz roll out / I trap when it's cold out / Wet niggaz clown / But I stay down till I'm sold out"), it's easy to think that maybe he's just focusing on his old "exciting" life because it's more likely to sell. And that's slightly true. But -- and this is always the rule with T.I. -- you have to listen very closely to see what he's really getting at. Because the chorus, hard to understand at first through all that Georgia in his voice but then devastatingly clear, runs "It's a trap (trap muzik) / This ain't no album, this ain't no game / It's a trap." When you hear the song again with that filter on it, it becomes clear that his rhymes on this song are clever metaphors conflating his former lifestyle with his current one.
This trick has been done before in gangsta rap, but I can't remember it being done better. The Trap, on one level, is how T.I., and all rappers really, suck people into hearing what they have to say by using funky beats. "See I sound underground / Like I'm rappin' in a dope house" is actually kind of true, because despite the smooth organ-based track and the precision of the drum programming it still all sounds homemade. And The Trap is how other rappers get sucked into rhyming about subjects they know nothing about: "All they do is steal niggaz ideas and rhyme with 'em / Holla some silver tongue 'bout the hood like they hung in 'em". And then we get a new perspective on The Trap, because after Boney Mac's great guest shot for the third verse, the whole song changes at the three-minute mark: the police show up, and the dope boys all scatter and go up over a chainlink fence. We are reminded that The Trap is a REAL place, that every city has Traps, that they will continue on no matter how much the rest of us cluck our tongues at them. And these traps pop up where you least expect them: "Listen pops, wanna know a little more about rap? / First rule: if it's real / It ain't just a record deal / It's a trap."
That turns out to be the central conceit of Trap Muzik: no matter where T.I. goes or what he does, he's still in The Trap. Sometimes, this doesn't bother him at all. The Kanye West-produced "Doin' My Job" (yep, sped-up soul sample and all) is pretty definite about this; not only does he take the role of what my social worker friend Carleen used to call "streetcorner pharmacist" ("Crack cocaine / Penicillin to Rogaine / Ecstacy, Viagra / Whatever can get the dough, man"), he makes sure we understand that drug dealers aren't always the supercriminal monsters portrayed on TV newsmagazines: "We not here threatenin' your lives, rapin' your children / We just out here stayin' alive, makin' a million."
He really wants this ambiguity to be a consistent theme. "Shorty them streets ain't the place to be / I'm tellin' you because it's too late for me" is the chorus to "Be Better Than Me", and his honest believable voice makes you think that maybe he even means it. But then there are cuts like "King of Da South" and "I Can't Quit" and "Look What I Got", where he glorifies his accomplishments and wealth and talks like he just doesn't care about all that ambiguity stuff anyway. And, although "24's" isn't explicitly or primarily about drug-selling, it's one of the hardest thug cuts of the year.
But it's not THE hardest thug cut of the year, because "Rubberband Man" is. It's a glorious celebration of being a big-time dealer, even through all the trials and dangers involved. And it's effortlessly, ruthlessly funky, from the David Banner production full of nagging child-chorus "na na na" intonations to the reckless drawl of the chorus: "Rubberband man / Wild as the Taliban / Nine in my right / .45 in my other hand / Call me Trouble Man / I always in trouble, man / Worth about two hundred grand / The shit is all covered, man." Banner is just about the toughest producer in the world right now, and T.I. hits the sweet spot right on. You'll rock to it, but you won't like yourself for it.
So he's just another rapper bigging up the drug trade so that impressionable kids will give him money, after all? Well, see, you fell in The Trap again. Because he's not, not really, as he proves in the best song here, "T.I. Vs. T.I.P." In this amazing feat of legerdemain, T.I. is getting ready to smoke with his buddies when he is visited by his own alter ego, who takes him to task for getting all aggravated by biters and pretenders and the like, and for forgetting how lucky he is to no longer be on the corner, in The Trap. The two trade verses, lines, internal rhymes, even parts of words. I'd quote lyrics all day, but it wouldn't really put across how incredibly complex and moving and weird this all sounds on headphones. You don't have to be T.I. to know The Trap is in one's mind, and it's easy to fall back into it, into anger and violence and bitterness. The only thing that can save you is your own self -- the dramatization of this is damned near genius. And it pumps, too.
And I haven't even had time to mention "I Still Luv You", where T.I. asks forgiveness from his ex-girlfriend, grants forgiveness to his dead father, and begs forgiveness from his daughter whose existence he hadn't acknowledged until now. Or the way he flows on "I Can't Quit", rhymes so carefully constructed that they should be in The Year's Best Poetry 2003, or his classic line "Y'all ain't never seen a dope boy play the piano and rap at the same time" from "Be Easy", or how he and Eightball & MGJ and Bun B all get down to DJ Toomp's reggaecrunk beat on the perfectly-named "Bezzle."
So consider them mentioned. And consider this one of the best records of the year. Damn right.