T.I. has a flow that is like a soft blanket, its smoothness intoxicating and dream-like, as soft and fluid as warm butter on toast. T.I. has had a pretty spotty critical period leading up to his latest release,Paperwork. The album appears as a sort of spiritual successor to his most popular record, Paper Trail, and he unabashedly explores the entire echelon of pop-hop, from the gritty ‘street legend’ angle that has popularized TIP in his earliest years to his pop persona. T.I. proves he has clout. He brings in pop-rap master Pharrell to executive produce the record, and he has enough self-awareness to know that Iggy Azalea on the lead track can only broaden his pop geared horizons. Unfortunately, the song is ridiculously dumb, which isn’t really a surprise.
And that is the masterwork of T.I. on this release. He manages to be both street and bubblegum pop on his latest album, like a Frankensteinian copulation of Michael Jackson, the Game, Britney Spears, and Dr. Dre. He has this ability to appease hip-hop heads while topping charts, a sort of much more talented but much less respected version of Jay Z. I do not believe this is deserved. T.I. has a grandiose flow that can weave from massively powerful to subtly reflective from one song to the next. Through that, he always manages to impress.
Speaking of being impressed, I have rarely been so by the features on T.I.’s material, and this record is really no different. A lot of unknowns come on, and though they hold their own with some memorable bars, their voice is drowned out in the high production and the subsequent rapping acrobatics of T.I. He comes with his buttery smooth flow and absolutely decimates the track, like his ego-driven bars on G’Shit or his aggressive angry tone over the sinister sounding drum-based Jet Fuel. But it is Boozie Badazz that takes it too far. He sounds like a Birdman parody, accentuating too much egotistical bombast without the credibility or the lyrical fun to back it up. Regardless, it is this song that seems closest to his work on King.
T.I. strikes out painfully when he slows things down, such as the quiet reflective ballad, Stay. It comes across as a little insincere given that T.I. is all about how awesome he is and how much he bests this industry. Even when he got introspective on previous albums, such as his demon shedding material from Paper Trail that had him admitting faults, he still noted he had more money than you. This is where T.I. is at his best. The ego maniacal side is fun, thrilling, adventurous, and we envy that. When he admits faults, he backs them up with authority. I fucked up, but don’t judge me- what about you, son?
This is why his ballads don’t work, and especially here. The album falls apart in its backhalf, where T.I.’s sugarey flow is disrupted by some mind-numbing hooks from the likes of Victoria Monet and Usher, making At Ya Own Risk a doldrum mining R&B junker. These chorus’ kill the pacing of the song, and T.I leans into that with this slow muddy style that sounds like him mumbling incoherently.
The biggest surprise from the record comes from the Skyler Grey feature and the track New National Anthem. It is a firey track of huge bombast and pitch-perfect production. I have seen very things improved by the presence of Skyler Gray. Who would have thought she was capable of not ruining something with her larger-than-life forced whine of a voice?
The bottom line is that T.I. has one of the tightest and best catalogs of music in modern hip-hop. From Urban Legend on, the man has challenged his own sound, bested the competition, and managed to navigate this industry like a brick through a window. Though none of his album’s are widely considered classic, the man has this energy and the talent to back up all his bombast. Paperwork tries a lot while still keeping everything plugged into the world of pop-rap. When other rappers of less skill would fall flat this far in, T.I.’s web of attraction fills in any holes. In essence, everything he does is good, yet not necessarily great, and the final product has no faults. But he lackssomething, yet difficult to pinpoint the subtle inferiority of his career.