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Beats Per Millennium - T.I.: Paper Trail

T.I.: Paper Trail

What do you need to know about hip hop in the year 2008 up until this point? Lil Wayne. Tha Carter III went platinum in a week, “Lollipop” spent five weeks at #1. I think everyone’s favorite up and comer, Wale, said it best – “Not a single feature except Lil Wayne / ‘cause everybody else did it, had to save face.” Not only was he everywhere, but he released the best hip hop album since Graduation came out late last year. Now the summer’s over, but there’s still a few more weeks where you can ride around with your windows down with loud hip hop blaring from the speakers. What should be your weapon of choice? Why, Paper Trail, as worthy an addition as any to T.I.‘s catalog, and easily the best album since, well, Tha Carter III.

But I know what you’re thinking – is there another What You Know on this record? No. There isn’t. And it was stupid of you to suggest that. T.I. is at a different point in his career – and life, for that matter. There’s not a lot of T.I.P. on this album, frankly. What You Know would ruin the rest of the album. T.I. got arrested and is going to jail for a year and performing 1000 hours of community service and he doesn’t want to go to jail again. He’s reflective and serious. The title of the record comes from T.I.‘s claim that he wrote down the lyrics to his album for the first time in years, and you can tell: he says everything with a bit more determination, like this is his last chance for a while to get his message out and he’s got to make it count.

“Live Your Life” is the best example of T.I.‘s new found positivity, opening up the track by advising you focus on what you have and not on what you don’t. Alright, well-worn advice that just about anyone could give. But do you know what T.I. did? He sampled the fucking Numa Numa song to do it.

Yes, this Numa Numa song. Goddammit, T.I.

But rather than craft a lousy novelty track, Rihanna comes in and reinvents the hook. Suddenly, improbably, it becomes a stellar track. I don’t know why the “blog sites” didn’t make a bigger deal out of this. T.I. and Rihanna did a song together, it samples the Numa Numa song, and it’s absolutely phenomenal. And while it’s a good pop song – and believe me, you hear a lot more Rihanna than T.I. on this track – T.I.‘s no slouch lyrically, either. In his first verse, he provides a demonstration of why his flow is so respected; in the second, he turns the dial down to about 3 as if to say, “this is the really important part, pay attention,” a man with a mission. “I got love for the game / but I’m not in love with all of it / I do without the fame / and the rappers now are comedy.” He never lectures, he’s not turning into a cranky old man bitching about the death of hip hop and how things were better in the old days. Rather, this is T.I. confessing he’s bored with the egos in the hip hop game. Maybe he doesn’t practice what he preaches (See: What Up, What’s Haapnin’), but to hear the author of one of the greatest swagger songs of all time, “What You Know,” get bored with macho posturing, comparing cars and cash and connections, it’s something to see. With T.I.‘s determination and Rihanna’s lended elegance atop the ebullient Numa Numa song, you’re getting a whole that is far more than the sum of its parts. To put it another way, if you dismiss this track as commercial fluff that does nothing for the LP, you are an idiot.

The divide on this album isn’t between “real hip hop” and “singles,” though I think he already released six singles off this one. The divide is between “swagger” and “going to jail, better make this one count.” While he dedicates “Live Your Life” to “all my soldiers out there in Iraq,” in “I’m Illy” he claims to be a “five-star general OG veteran.” So which T.I. do you like better, the King of Atlanta or the one who, with his prison term looming, succumbed to the Kanyefication of rap?

By happy circumstance, you don’t always have to choose. In “Ready For Whatever” he admits his guilt in the Machine Guns matter: “Now is it that hard to understand if you listen / Either die or go to jail, that’s a hell of decision / but I’m wrong and I know it my excuses unimportant / I’m just trying to let you know that I ain’t think I had a choice / For real.” Not quite “When I’m called off I got a sawed off / Squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off,” but not quite “We all self conscious, I’m just the first to admit it” either.

Since we’re so into dualities, let’s compare the two big guest MC tracks on the record: Ludacris contributes a verse to “On Top of the World” and Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and Kanye all appear on “Swagga Like Us.” One is a celebration of Atlanta – T.I. recalls the tough days trying to pull himself up, Luda celebrates the good life, and then T.I. brings it all together at the end. Of course, Luda steals the show – “And they say rappers shouldn’t act, nahh suckers / We see Samuel L. Jackson like what’s up, motherfucker?” T.I. almost sounds lazy in comparison – almost – and the hook could have been slightly better selected (is that what T-Pain sounds like without Autotune?), but it’s a better than most reflection on rags to riches.

“Swagga Like Us” is a meeting of so many titans that it has to be a setup for disappointment. When’s the last time you heard Kanye, Jay, Wayne, T.I., M.I.A., and Autotune on one track? It’s a good track, but the spectacle of it almost makes it hard to take too seriously. Wayne shouldn’t be using that much autotune. The beat isn’t to be fucked with, none of them are terribly lazy, it’s a good track that will get more attention than it deserves because of the star power. If anything, it’s a good enough teaser for Blueprint III.

“No Matter What” has been on constant rotation on my headphones since the video dropped a while back, and it sounds just as good on the album. Sure, he’s as apt to cliche as I am (“Revenge is best served as a cold dish!”) but when the beat drops out at the end of the track and the strings kick in, well… dude’s got a flare for drama. The King of the South surveys his empire and reminds everyone that he’ll be back… oh, he’ll be back.

There are three more songs that deserve to be talked about together. “My Life, Your Entertainment,” “Slide Show,” and “Dead and Gone,” featuring Usher, John Legend, and Justin Timberlake, respectively. The first, a tepid woe-is-me anthem condemning the cult of celebrity. T.I…. ok? You want a moment to yourself? Get put under house arrest. None of us feel bad for you. And why did you give Usher a whole verse? The chorus is enough Usher for the week. “Slide Show” is the strongest indicator of the Kanyefication of the South, as sad T.I. wonders what life would have been like if he’d slowed life down a bit, if he’d lived a better life and went to school and not had to shoot people. It’s remorse, not swagger, and it’s compelling – though I think John Legend could have had something better to work with.

“Dead and Gone” finishes the album on a high note, bringing back that Justin/T.I. magic we’ve been missing since “My Love.” It’s not “My Love,” but it has a jittery beat almost reminiscent of JT’s trademark beatboxing and a few of T.I.‘s tightest verses on the album about straightening up, a parole hearing within a five minute track. Sick of seeing his friends dead, sick of being put in the position where he’s got the choice of jail or the grave, he’s abandoning “the old me.” Is T.I.P. dead? Has T.I. won the struggle? Ah, who the hell knows. T.I.‘s going to jail for a while, and Paper Trail is the result, a record that shows the two sides of T.I. much better than T.I. vs T.I.P. ever could without being a concept record. Turns out he does his best when he’s not even trying. It’s one of the better records of the year, and T.I. becomes more engaging an MC than he ever has been.

P.S.: At the end of the first track, 56 Bars, T.I. says “Bet they say / as of to-day / I’m back on top / like a toupee.” This is worth at least a tenth of a point. Well played, T.I.

Posted by Joe Kaiser at Sep 30, 2008 01:04 AM


It occurred to me today that NOBODY has had better beats than T.I. in a long time.

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