Tuesday, October 21, 2014

album review: 'paperwork' by t.i.

You know, the more I think about it, the more I'm a little amazed how long T.I. has managed to sustain his clout even today.

Sure, in the very beginning he delivered some star-making records and proved instrumental in defining the trap scene in southern hip-hop, playing off a dual persona that proved to be a surprisingly versatile element in sustaining his career. It helped he had a lot of sleazy yet easy-going charisma and an adaptable, elastic flow that balanced off strong, hook-driven production. Sure, lyrically he could come across as a bit of an asshole, but he was the sort of character that produced such catchy, bombastic music that along with Ludacris he soon developed a tight grip on southern hip-hop.

But with the image and lifestyle came legal troubles, and T.I. was soon stuck in the position of trying to fix up his image. He dropped his most pop-friendly album ever with Paper Trail in 2008, which proved to be one of the biggest of his career but also was uneven in terms of solid quality. After a stint in jail, he came back with No Mercy, which despite some standout tracks was even more uneven in terms off quality. In retrospect, the problem seemed to be very simple: there wasn't a balance between T.I.'s personas, and whenever that balance got skewed, the albums worked less and less. 

So when T.I. came back near the end of 2012 with Trouble Man: Heavy Is The Head, it seemed like a welcome return to form. Most the production was back on point, T.I. sounded more invested in delivering quality wordplay than ever before, and he managed to wrangle together a cohesive sound. Sure, not all of the features turned out and his subject matter hadn't really evolved, but it's not like I was expecting that either. But instead of following up with that project with its planned sequels, T.I. looked to be even more ambitious and with his new album Paperwork proclaimed it'd be the beginning of a new trilogy. And look, as much as I liked Trouble Man - not better than King or Trap Muzik but it was still solid, I wasn't exactly enthused going into this release. Sure, I still hold that Paper Trail was a decent album, but did we really need a follow-up? And with singles like 'No Mediocre' where his protege Iggy Azalea was dropping more well-structured bars than T.I. was, I didn't know what to expect from the reportedly collaborator-swollen Paperwork Did we get something of quality, or a regression?

Well, honestly, I think we got some of both. Because once again, T.I.'s delivered another project that's overall somewhat uneven. It's got some incredibly solid tracks that delivered exactly what you could expect from T.I. plus more... but it's also got songs that feel a lot sloppier than they should. A lot of this album coasts by on attitude and swagger - and don't get me wrong, that's a huge chunk of T.I.'s appeal - but when you dive deeper, what you find underneath can feel a little hit-and-miss.

So let's start with T.I. himself, and I'll be the first to say that while I do prefer his 'T.I.' persona to his 'T.I.P' alter ego, at the end of the day I just want to see T.I. go off with his aggressive flow, solid wordplay, and sheer raw charisma. Because when T.I. can build to a solid flow, he can make his very immediate, in your face style of wordplay work without needing to be too complex - he can deliver real substance, but for the most part it's pure style, and there are some solid as hell songs on that note alone, like the opening track 'King', the Pharrell collaboration 'Oh Yeah', or the explosive Boosie Badazz collaboration 'Jet Fuel'. The thing is that T.I. can occasionally come across as lazy or sloppy when doesn't push himself, which was the problem I had with both of the singles on this album, although the real surprise when it came to low energy was 'On Doe, On Phil' featuring Trae The Truth dropping a pretty damn solid verse that easily outshined T.I. dropping into autopilot.

Granted, the production wasn't giving him a lot of help, which also proves to be a bit of a mixed bag on this album. Now T.I. said he was going for a cinematic feel with this record - and really, when goes for those larger than life tracks he tends to do really well, even if they do have a distinctive trap vibe. 'King' is all horns and organ and oldschool gospel, and while it's all incredibly slick, T.I. has the sort of arrogant swagger to ride over this production perfectly. It's why explosive, propulsive tracks like 'New National Anthem' featuring Skylar Grey with the horns and snare drums, the choir and bongos of 'Oh Yeah', the trumpets and hi-hats of 'Jet Fuel', the smooth jazzy vibe with the thicker bass on 'About My Issue', the bells and horns on 'Light 'Em Up (RIP Doe B)' to the symphonic vibe of 'Let Your Heart Go (Break My Soul)', it's why these songs feel so well-balanced and potent and - dare I say it - cinematic. Yet when T.I. goes over lighter beats, he gets significantly less impressive results. The best is probably the title track, if only because has a textured old-school vibe that worked even despite Pharrell's less-than-impressive hook, or maybe 'G Shit' thanks to the textured percussion and WatchTheDuck's howls on the chorus, but 'No Mediocre' feels incredibly unimpressive even despite the shimmering backing synth line. And that's before we get songs like 'About That Money' with Young Thug which has this really thin organ tone for the melody and needed slightly more abrasive trap percussion to really anchor the song, or 'Private Show' with Chris Brown that had a pretty solid spacious vibe and melody that is utterly squandered with a pitch-shifted voice over the entire track that completely kills it for me, or the absolute disaster of a song 'At Ya Own Risk' which features this oily synth that has a borderline chiptune high synth and proves that Usher does not sound good at all over trap & drill inspired production. Hell, on that song T.I. sounds incredibly lazy, so I don't think anyone could have sounded good on it. 

On that note, T.I.'s guest stars don't exactly deliver stellar performances. Jeezy's verse is good enough even though it only highlights the fact he hasn't really evolved far beyond the trap, but the bigger highlights are from Boosie Badazz's aggressive verse on 'Jet Fuel' and Trae The Truth's grimier flow that fits a lot better over that beat than T.I. does. Outside of that... well, Iggy Azalea's verse is the biggest redeeming factor on 'No Mediocre', and I think I finally get why Young Thug is famous thanks to some marginally creative wordplay  on 'About The Money', but neither verse is good or memorable. As for hooks, the easy standout is WatchTheDuck's rougher, more soulful delivery, because Pharrell's vocals often feel a little thin or even calculated to match with these songs. I'm a little surprised that for a song going for a political message about black America, T.I. got Skylar Grey's pretty but not particularly distinctive vocals instead of someone more soulful, especially considering he got Victoria Monet for two songs later on the album.

But in the end, we need to circle back to lyrics and themes. T.I. has had some great lines in his career, and some fantastic bars - and a few of them do show up on this album. I might not always be the biggest fan of his T.I.P. persona, but when he goes off on tracks like 'King' and 'What Now' and 'Jet Fuel', he makes the arrogance and aggression work through sheer bravado alone. And what I've always liked about T.I. is though his pictures might feel close to an established formula, he does throw in enough details to set a vivid scene, like on the pseudo-origin story on the title track describing him and his uncle. But on his singles, he stumbles towards brand-name luxury rap cliches way too quickly, and his sex songs like 'Private Room' can raise their own questions, like why T.I.'s telling the girl not to cry during sex or why he's choking her. And that's not touching on the song 'Stay', where T.I. seems to be trying to plead for his wife to stay, but then there's lines like 'you wanna be right, or you wanna be with me' or the tone of the instrumentation over the first verse which feels way darker than it should. But I'll give it to him, he does sound sincere, and indeed that sincerity lends the more complex tracks a certain weight. 'Light Em Up' is a solid anthem to a labelmate of T.I.'s who had been killed last year, and 'Let Your Heart Go' is a surprisingly honest picture of T.I. now, admitting that selling drugs wasn't a dream but simply a means to get free. 

The song that'll get the most attention, however, is 'New National Anthem', mostly because it's T.I.'s scathing indictment of gun culture in the US. Now unlike The Game's most recent attempt to tackle this issue on songs like 'The Purge', T.I. has a better focus and does a lot more in the song to get to the real issues, like mandatory minimum sentences, the drug war, and a message to work hard and get out of the trap, because it's not like the government or the police are going to help. Now it'd be very easy to point out T.I.'s hypocrisy about gun violence when there are significant chunks of this album riddled with guns, and to be fair to T.I. he addresses that and his felonies - but T.I., when you say 'I ain't gave it to anybody who didn't deserve it', you're still acting outside the law. Yeah, you might have been avoiding innocents or only carrying weapons for self-defense as a product of your environment and the insanity of American gun culture, but the buck has to stop somewhere, and when in the very same song he says he'll kill those who come after his clique, the non-violent message of the icons he evokes feels undercut. Although once again, to be fair, T.I. also highlights the same sort of racial profiling and the ability of police to avoid the consequences of the law they're supposed to protect, so I definitely understand why he feels justified.

So at the end of the day, what can you say about Paperwork by T.I.? Well, it's good, but it's a lot more uneven than it should be. I'll be honest, in the hands of a less charismatic rapper, this album would be substantially weaker, because the wordplay is not stellar - but the hooks are solid and most of the production is great. That said, T.I. is capable of better rhymes and verses, or at least more interesting wordplay... and yet at the same time, for what this album is, it is pretty effective. So for that, I'm thinking a very strong 6/10 - definitely not T.I.'s best, but it'll certainly please his hardcore fanbase, and we can only hope that his followup to this supposed trilogy manages to add more cohesion.

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