(Grand Hustle/Atlantic; 2008)
By Clayton Purdom | 3 November 2008
I knew my opinion of T.I.’s Paper Trail before I ever heard it. Here: “After a career defined by technical proficiency and strong beat selection, impending incarceration has imposed upon T.I. the narrative backstory he’s always lacked, infusing all those lyrical fireworks with heart and emotion, and, accordingly, producing the most rewarding record of his career.” Certainly this galls you, or at the very least affirms your opinion of CMG and critics in general. “He’s not listening with an open mind!” you protest. “He’s just slogging along agreeing with himself! What a fuck!”
While the last of these is certainly valid, so (mostly) was my pre-release take on this record. Caught on what I’ve previously referred to as “some stupid ‘having guns where you shouldn’t’ shit,” Tip’s bid doesn’t seem too particularly dire until you hear him talk about it. I didn’t even know he was headed to the slammer until watching the “No Matter What” video got me all depressed and thinking about life and stuff. And, indeed, that single presages some of the best moments here. The second verse of “Ready For Whatever” features some brutally sharp lines: “I admit it, I’m guilty”; “Niggas out there plan to rob and kill me / Five hundred thousand spent every year on security”; “Either die or go to jail / That’s a hell of a decision”; or, most nakedly, “I didn’t think I had a choice / For real.” This is blunt lyricism, stronger than he’s ever spit, his terror at the prospect of living in a cage surfacing again in “Dead and Gone” and, sorta, with Lindsay Lohan lipgloss on “My Life, Your Entertainment.”
But note the (mostly) above. This is still, despite these soul-bearing tracks, a T.I. record, and the inability to establish a consistent persona—that same facelessness which he attempted to treat as charisma on 2007’s confusing T.I. vs T.I.P.—remains. We’re stuck as usual with a host of T.I.s to choose from, each equally likeable but clashing with one another. While popular rappers long ago made doublespeak a fundamental right, T.I.‘s malleability is less textually interesting than, say, Biggie’s dealings with women or Nas’s with fame. So we’re left to choose from glossy crossover pop (as on the nougat-y central stretch “On Top of the World,” “Live Your Life,” and “Whatever You Like”), billowing fuck-you trap-hop (“What Up, What’s Haapnin” “56 Bars”), effervescent blog-rap (“I’m Illy,” the instantaneous “Swagga Like Us”), or the aforementioned gloomy Roc-A-Fella maundering. And though he shuffles through these personas with grace and wit and nary a dud track (excepting Swizz Beats’ “Swing Ya Rag”), the listener is left upon completion still wondering who the fuck this T.I. character is.
Sequenced as the record is, with each personality dominating certain stretches of runtime, Paper Trail feels almost vaudevillian. “Whatever You Like” to “No Matter What” evokes a Broadway scene change, bars descending as he tears away his tailored suit to reveal prison orange. Accurately named King (2006) attempted to rule modern radio, utilizing T.I.‘s Swiss army flow in as many ways as necessary, but Paper Trail seems to want to be the radio, artist shifts intact. (Also popping up here is Ludacris’s best verse in years and another fly Rihanna technoporn single.) It’s a fine pop album in the end, but up against Tha Carter III and Jeezy’s bullheadedly brilliant Recession and whatever Jay-Z, Kanye, and Big Boi have planned for the next month, an altogether dissipating one as well.