He has yet to serve his one-year jail sentence, but the prospect of prison seems to have affected T.I.
Although his latest release, “Paper Trail,” still contains standard gangsta tracks, the tone and lyrical content of many of his songs have matured in the wake of last October’s conviction.
Initially, there is no way of telling that anything in T.I.’s life has changed. The album’s opener, “56 Bars,” is a verbal onslaught behind a half-time Southern beat and T.I.’s classic synth background. The Atlanta rapper is as cocky as ever, confidently chuckling as he gloats: “Better check my swagga / How I walk, how I talk, how I stack dat chedda / What I drive, how I dress, nigga looks just betta / Hundred stacks on that nigga I’m just … Betta.”
But it is when T.I. steps out of his comfort zone that the album excels. When the beat slows down and the pianos enter, T.I. creates solemn, introspective songs whose lyrics deal with incarcerated friends, the responsibility of providing for his family and the decisions he has made in his life. To match the lyrical complexity of these tracks, the album’s producers move beyond the standard hip-hop beat and add color through the use of unconventional instruments. “You Ain’t Missin’ Nothing,” for example, features acoustic guitar reminiscent of Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” and a wailing saxophone that complement T.I.’s soft delivery, as he says: “I know the times seem long / Just try and keep strong /Put on your headphones and rewind this song / Remember you ain’t missin’ nothin’ homes.”
Ironically, T.I.’s mature songs cast a pallor over some of the album’s more commercial tracks, making them seem trite in comparison. “Porn Star” finds T.I. hoping that a girl he meets will be a good hook-up, while “Swing Ya Rag” describes Harris and his posse flailing a do-rag in the club instead of the culturally acceptable custom of dancing.
“Paper Trail” includes collaborations with rap powerhouses Jay-Z, Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne, but also with some unexpected contributors who add variety to the album. “Slide Show,” featuring John Legend, is a touching look back at the trajectory of T.I.’s life, while “Live your Life” combines two of the worst recent developments in 21st-century popular music — Rihanna and the Moldovan pop group that brought the world the “Numa Numa” song — with surprisingly good results. Somehow, a military-style beat and the typical T.I. background “Aye!” shouts give the O-Zone sample something it should have never conceivably had — street cred.
Although “Paper Trail” definitely includes many vintage T.I. tracks — both in a good and bad sense — there is obvious evidence that T.I. is evolving. Harris’s more thoughtful lyrics and unorthodox rap tracks are the album’s best, while the conventional Southern-style tracks are still club-friendly. All that remains to be seen now is the effect actual incarceration has on his music — and way of life.