T.I., The Know-It-All
There was a time when T.I. was getting arrested for holding kilos in the trunk as if to say "yeah I rap...and?" to his label execs and anyone investing time in his future. The original trap star operated with impunity while on parole and was released shortly thereafter on his own recognizance, namely to be well-behaved as a music star should be. All irony aside, he made it his personal mission to free himself from the shackles of rap stereotyping by completely revising his image. In his mixtape phase he blessed Gangsta Grillz and addressed beefs with a pat reply: "I'm King, hear me roar." Simple enough. It's not entirely different from the Wayne tactics of '07, though exercised years earlier. Cliff is a brash character who raps with the same tenacity that accentuates his personality.
He is not all snarls and grimaces, however. As evidenced by the recent skirmish with Luda's manager, he might fuck around and hit you if he's feeling so inclined. At a recent press conference concerning the imagined damage that hip hop had perpetrated on American culture, he was quick to fire back at the fickle media...and ever so eloquently clarified why those theories were specious. In terms of his personality, T.I. wins more points than most rappers because he has never forced himself into a role he does not easily assume in reality. 50 Cent is the super-thug hiding in palatial homes. Kanye is the repressed suburbanite trying to become glamorous. Jay is the purposely ambiguous potentate overseeing a falling empire. None of the aforementioned brings himself into the fray without an armor of multiple personas.
T.I. was never that but he has chosen to revert to this schizophrenia by pushing his alter-ego oeuvre T.I. vs. T.I.P. on to the people. There are some justifiable questions about his make-over. First, there haven't been many successful concept albums in the mainstream. As much as I thought Tyrese would break the mold with Black Ty or whatever he called it, no dice. The RZA had Bobby Digital (one of my actual favorites) but it was not made for mass consumption by any standards, meandering into tales of sex and violence. Doing an alter-ego concept album is about as hard to flip as the elusive double album victory. Why T.I. would choose to enter such dangerous territory at this point in his climb is a real enigma. In fact, that's the problem. He has never been enigmatic in any sense. His songs are he and he is they. Even his crossover records like "Why You Wanna" came from the cool sneering viewpoint and his verse on "My Love" was not as cuddly as Wayne's on "You" with Lloyd.
Forgive the constant Wayne comparisons but, frankly, the two are worth measuring against each other because of their symmetrical ascension and subsequent divergence.
Back to T.I. and his new T.I.P. I'm-not-who-you-think-I-am obsession. Marketing and branding are as important to hip hop music as it ever was, mind you. So every artist has made some concessions of individuality to align himself with a brand or a "look." It would be near-sighted to take issue with that but creating your brand by cutting yourself into two lesser halves seems stupid. Up to now, his songs have had the straight-shooter appeal and even express that theme in the titles. In his opus he has, "Whatchu Know About Dat"; "You Don't Know Me"; "You Know What It Is"; "Told You So", "I'm Talkin To You" and other unmistakably direct descriptions. To then veer into the realm of multiple layers and gimmicky dual roles is a contradiction to everything he has done thus far. It falls short of insulting intelligence due to its utter lucidity but son might be making a move that permanently affects his status as a relevant artist.
From a critical standpoint, he accomplished the most he could on King and Urban Legend by taking his braggadocious lyrics and applying them to oversized beats. He survived the summer of Big Beats by matching tracks with Jeezy and Rick Ross -- we'll be saying "who?" about those two any year now -- and wades through conflict like no other. He has never incited fights with anyone but, like an angry dog, he will move when provoked. He has made a stamp with ornery lyrics and the stickiest drawl in the game. If you consider his all-knowing nature above what he lacks in topical depth, he has made an undeniable stamp with candidness about who he is. With his name as his word, he can easily blaze through the swagger-touting replaceable rappers to make his way to the top. Instead, he is essentially doing a Jay in '98 and saying he'll do what everyone expects. "Big Sh*t Poppin" is a repeat of "Whatchu Know" but without duplicating the far-flung horns or triumphant feel, it sounds like T.I. struggling to reinvent himself as...well himself.
I may be wrong in the end but there is a disastrous air about T.I. going for another platinum-seller behind a hackneyed idea such as this. Hopefully, he packs a punch that will carry him outside of the flimsy press world and into the annals of Southern rap supremacy.
This week @ The Smoking Section - T.I. Vs. T.I.P. Vs. TSS. All audio, video & written pieces about Clifford Joseph Harris, Jr. B-sides, mixtapes, appearances...
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