It's pretty early in 2006 to talk about albums of the year -- but this record says it's time to start.
I'm already on record around here as saying that Clifford "T.I." Harris is one of America's greatest songwriters. I'm not just talking about hip-hop, either -- even if you add in all the other genres that people go all gaga over, T.I. strides this narrow world like a colossus. No one is smarter, no one constructs tighter songs, and no one has more ways to score.
This is proven over and over again on King, T.I.'s fourth album. By now, you might well have heard the menacing first single "What You Know"; this instant classic has been all over the place, with its interweaving layers of gothsynth and T.I.'s laconic gangster drawl. It's stunning, a real cathedral of menace -- not only is it the best track DJ Toomp has ever done, but it features a brilliantly exhausted performance by T.I., who just wants all the haters to shut up but doesn't want any boring drama: "You's a scary dude/ Believed by very few/ Just keep it very cool/ Or we will bury you/ See, all your attitude's/ Unnecessary, dude."
But this song, as iconic and huge as it is, is not the real early highlight of the album. That would be the next song, the Just Blaze-produced "I'm Talkin' to You". The subject matter is not necessarily original -- calling out fake rappers, ho hum -- but the way T.I. goes about it is original in two ways. First, he gets specific about who he's NOT talking about (all his friends and associates), with the implication being that everyone else is suspect; secondly, about halfway through, he upshifts from standard modern Southern rap parlance to a double-time workout that seems to nod to both Twista and old Miami booty bass. This latter stylistic twist is a good old-fashioned showoff gauntlet-throw, and it becomes the heart of the record.
But there is a lot of heart here to go around. T.I.'s greatest stylistic weapon is the sincerity he projects in every song, whether he's lamenting the pain of losing friends and family to violence (the heartbreaking "Live in the Sky" with Jamie Foxx doing a lovely gospel vocal), flirting with all the ladies over squiggly Germanic techno-beats ("Stand Up Guy") and Todd Rundgren samples ("Hello"), or inviting listeners to visit tough-ass neighborhoods in Atlanta to see the other America ("Ride Wit Me"). He sees a lot of different sides to every issue, and sounds as comfortable rhyming with ultra-thugs UGK on "Front Back" as he does with conscious-rap cover dude Common on "Goodlife".
Not every track here has some kind of wild new never-been-heard-before beat. This has some Internet beat nerds up in arms, but who cares what they think? Keith Mack's track for "Told You So" is a low-key reggae-influenced slog, but the song still works because of the laser-point lyrical attack, which is carefully composed from beginning to end even though it sounds like it's freestyled. This is a tricky thing even when the beat is all shiny; Swizz Beatz' track for "Get It" sounds just like a Rich Harrison jam, all huge drum loops and brass stabs, but T.I. picks a syncopated lyrical rhythm that lets him ride right through the busy track in high style: "Got that guacamole/ Holy moly/ You don't know me/ See, me clean as I wanna be/ What thee nigga wanna be/ Shots so bright I can't see niggaz standin' right in front of me/ These niggaz don't want none of me/ This rappin' shit is fun to me." Uh, word.
T.I. is the whole package: gritty, smooth, smart, dangerous, introspective, and wise. And while it's pretty early in 2006 to talk about albums of the year, this record says it's time to start talking.