In a certain respect, it’s “over” for T.I. He hasn’t released an album that anyone has been excited for since 2009′s Paper Trail, a product of post-prison positivity that landed him major hits with the Rihanna collaboration “Live Your Life” and the ever-romantic “Whatever You Like.” His subsequent releases — last year’s Trouble Man, but especially 2010′s No Mercy — have been critically reviled, shrugged off as evidence that he’s now permanently a member of rap’s elder class, unable to craft something as potent as his classics.
And, sure, the VH1 rap-reality canon is where Tip lives now, and where he’s found the most success recently — unless you want to count minting Billboard record-holder Iggy Azalea as a member of his Grand Hustle crew and a guest on the unfortunately titled “No Mediocre,” but that’s a can of worms for a different kind of criticism. With four seasons of Tiny and T.I.: The Family Hustle under his and wife, Xscape’s Tameka “Tiny” Cottle’s Louis V. belt, the Harris family has solidified themselves as the real-life Brady Bunch of Atlanta. There is not an episode of their show that isn’t both heartwarming and hilarious.
This begs the question: Do we need another T.I. album? The answer would seem to be no. But Paperwork demands we acknowledge he hasn’t run out of breath yet, and that a lot of what he has to say is still relevant. As he did on Paper Trail‘s openers “56 Bars” and “I’m Illy,” T.I. kicks off with a ferocious return to form. The song is called “King,” a nod to a significant piece of his legacy. He is gruff, rapping with rapid-fire precision. While it’s not the most lyrically deft showing on the record, it’s more energized effort. Elsewhere he shines on tracks like the single “About the Money”; “G Shit,” which features fellow ATL vet Jeezy, who has similarly breathed new life into his wavering career this year; and “New National Anthem.”
The track, which has nothing to do with his seven-minute bass-rattling opus of a similar name, is the album’s most important cut. He kicks it off with “There’s a chopper going off in the hood the same way there is in Afghanistan or the Gaza Strip” before launching into two verses about the dichotomy between who in America is seemingly “allowed” to have guns and who is not, beseeching cops not to shoot at him on his way home and discussing the environs in which gun use is seen as a result of mental instability versus gang violence being viewed as urban savagery. To hear Tip, who has famously been arrested for the illegal purchase of firearms and has long discussed the paranoia that inspires one to arm himself that way, rap about this in the wake of Eric Garner and months of cataclysm coming from St. Louis is formidable.
T.I. was also recently affected by the tragic loss of Grand Hustle rapper Doe B at the end of last year. The Alabama rapper was only 22 when he was gunned down in his hometown Montgomery a few days after Christmas. T.I. pays tribute to Doe on two tracks — “Light Em Up (RIP Doe B)” and “On Doe, On Phil,” which is also named for the best friend Tip lost in a shooting in 2006 — and they are the most emotionally rich pieces of the album. It kicks you in the gut most when he raps, “What I know ’bout Satan?/ He patiently waitin’/ Robbin’, stealin’, kill off greatness in the makin’… Goddamn, shawty/ You was ‘sposed to make it.”
But this is the kind of material T.I. should stick to delivering. We have weekly visual confirmation via Hustle that he’s long left the life he lived on Trap Muzik and Urban Legend. But with Paperwork, these pockets of post-hood reflection are where he excels. Certainly, T.I. is always great when it comes to crafting bedroom fantasies — and the album’s “At Ya Own Risk” with Usher is no different — but sexy fan service should be the only time he doesn’t take himself too seriously. The album’s lackluster, misogynist first single “No Mediocre” foretold that listeners were in for superficial pop excess. I’m-better-than-you flexing on songs like “I Don’t Know” and “About My Issue” feels stale in comparison to his instances of introspection. Fortunately, when T.I. goes deep, Paperwork shines.