After 2010’s bland and forgettable No Mercy and a prison stint that lasted most of 2011, T.I. spent 2012 in damage control mode. He did some spotlight stealing guest appearances, dropped a street friendly mixtape, and had a slow drip of singles that aimed for club, chart, and car system supremacy. Now with Trouble Man: Heavy Is The Head, T.I.’s game plan has become clear; regain credibility at all costs, even if the music suffers.
Much has changed since T.I. dominated the pop rap world in 2008. The trap style he helped popularize on his early releases has been absorbed and appropriated by white EDM DJs and the synth heavy pop production style that made him the coolest man on earth on 2008’s Paper Trail has since fallen out of favor. Like any smart mainstream artist, T.I. has adjusted with the times, but there are still plenty of reminders of his old aesthetics. Where there used to be triumphant horn sections, there are now lonely trumpets sounding in the distance, and the glorious waves of synthized melodies have been replaced by low electronic bass tones. However, these shifts don’t have too much of a tangible effect, as T.I. is one of those rare MCs who makes every sound he approaches seem like one of his own, regardless of the content. His mix of dignified staccato and southern fried slur instantly transforms what would normally be drugged out cloud rap (“Wildside”, with A$AP Rocky, no less!) or smooth west coast funk into songs that groove in the way that only Atlanta hip-hop can. This immediacy is both a strength and a weakness. Now that southern rap has become the ubiquitous approach taken by mainstream artists, T.I. occasionally sounds somewhat bland and predictable, at times resembling the lesser artists whose careers would not be possible without him. His complacency with his own style is made apparent when Andre 3000, once a contemporary, forcefully takes over “Sorry” by effortless switching his approach from conversational and melodic, to rapid fire and propulsive and back again. Andre 3000’s verse carries so much weight, in both form and content that the rest of the album seems to fall into it like a black hole.
It does not help matters that much of the album is repetitive in its message. It is clear that T.I. simultaneously wants to maintain his position as a chart topping pop artist and reaffirm his street credentials as a gun-toting, drug-using badass. This leads to some very strange transitions between songs with melodramatic P!nk guest spots and tracks with T.I. gleefully warning potential rivals that he’s no longer on probation. These two sides meet halfway when T.I. focuses on his consistent run-ins with the law and arrests. On one hand we have “Can You Learn” where he attempts to be self-deprecating but ends up glorifying his hedonistic lifestyle by sheer force of charisma. On the other is “Hallelujah”, in which T.I. details his prison experience in a defeated monotone in between the most egregious use of Leonard Cohen’s melody of the name.
These moments of self-reflection are nice to see, if only for the fact that they are the rare parts of the album where T.I. acts his age. But the truth of the matter is that T.I. is best when he’s audibly giving in to his hubris. Hopefully this record sells well enough to warrant more bravado in the future.