Rating: 4/5 stars
Pros: T.I. and his producers are at the top of their game.
Cons: First three gangsta rap songs don't fit with rest of album.
Bottom Line: T.I. finds creative inspiration from stark legal trouble.
No Matter What
On Top of the World
Four hours before he was supposed to perform at the 2007 BET Hip-Hop Awards, T.I. was arrested trying to buy machine guns. A convicted felon caught violating multiple federal laws, his life was basically over. He went from sitting "On Top of the World" to possible being "in jail until 2027." His new album Paper Trail tells how he got there.
He established his artistic identity on his breakthrough 2003 album Trap Muzik. The fiery swagger he brought from his time as a drug-dealer fueled his anthemic singles, while his introspective lyrics dissected the downsides of that lifestyle.
His combination of star-power and lyrical ability made him an industry superstar. But as his fame grew he faced a dilemma of many successful gangsta rappers -- his best came music came from the contradictions of the gangster lifestyle, a lifestyle increasingly incompatible with the success his music brought. So he began staying "in trouble just to let these suckers know I was serious."
On one hand, he was rap royalty (see "Swagger Like Us" with features from Jay-Z, Kanye West and Lil' Wayne) starring in Hollywood movies. On the other, he was constantly violating probation, culminating in a 2006 shoot-out after a club performance that left his best friend dead.
He tried to square the circle with 2007's "TI vs. TIP". There were two sides to his personality: TI (the mature businessman) and TIP (the hot-headed gangster). Throughout the album, they had to accept that they needed each other. But as he found out, the resolution to his existential conflict ended up being quite a bit messier.
Recorded during house arrest, Paper Trail is a sober reflection of the consequences of his decisions. He defiantly defends his need for protection while recognizing "how much better life would have been if I had slowed down / Maybe I'd have been Kanye / instead of seeing gunplay."
The album's title refers to his return to writing down his lyrics, instead of just putting them together in his head. By his own admission, writing helped him "concentrate" and the improvement is dramatic -- every song has a clear concept and each line pushes it forward.
Another welcome return is DJ Toomp, his longtime producer whose absence was sorely felt on TI vs. TIP. Paper Trail is chock full of big-budget faux-epic synthesizer jams ("Whatever You Like", "Live Your Life") modeled after the Toomp-produced "What You Know".
Several times in the album, T.I. compares himself to Tupac -- another superstar rapper whose reckless lifestyle fueled his rise and contributed to his fall. Soon after he released Paper Trail, T.I. will go to jail for a year, a situation Tupac faced after Me Against The World. But after he got out, Tupac doubled-down on his behavior -- joining Death Row Records and recording two legendary albums that cemented his legend. If T.I. really is a "changed man" than Paper Trail may be his last great album.