The first thing you need to know about No Mercy is that it’s not the album T.I. planned to release at this juncture. T.I. didn’t plan to be back in jail, either. But here we are. Ever since the rapper was released from prison in March, he has been promising King Uncaged, an album that would serve as his return to wide-angle Southern triumphalism. Then in September he was arrested for drug possession and sentenced to 11 more months behind bars. King Uncaged, apparently unfinished at the time, was switched out in favor of an album and title more reflective of T.I.’s new situation.
How much of King Uncaged has ended up on No Mercy, and how much was recorded after the arrest, is a question we don’t really know the answer to. I’m pretty sure that “Get Back Up,” for example, which features a syrupy Chris Brown hook and apologetic, plaintive verses from T.I., is of post-arrest vintage. Ditto the power-ballad title track, with The-Dream soaring in a maudlin falsetto about “Right or wrong/ Let me go!” and T.I. rapping in a crucifixion pose: “Tell the judge if he throwed the book at me/ Make it the Bible.” Almost worse than T.I. going back to jail is the fact that he’s been forced into this mode of dour self-reflection. Unlike Kanye West, T.I. lacks the ability to translate his personal foibles into high art.
T.I.’s most recent studio album, Paper Trail, suffered from the a similar set of external pressures. When the album came out, in late 2008, T.I. was facing the sentence he finished serving earlier this year, an issue broached on testimonial bummers “Ready for Whatever” and “No Matter What.” But Paper Trail also had swagger in spades, with street rumblers like “What Up Whats Haapnin” and “I’m Illy.” These essential elements of T.I.’s arsenal are grossly underrepresented on No Mercy. There’s nothing here even close to the classic thunderclap of “What You Know” or the bluesy crawl of “Rubberband Man.” Even the attempts at pop crossover disappoint. Where Paper Trail had Rihanna on the emphatic “Live Your Life,” No Mercy gives us Christina Aguilera and the cloying “Castle Walls,” a song that bears an embarrassing resemblance to Britney Spears’ “Lucky.”
Elsewhere on No Mercy T.I. slips chameleonlike across songs that capture the aesthetic of their guest stars or producers more than his own. Opener “Welcome to the World,” featuring West and Kid Cudi, could have been a G.O.O.D. Friday release in its claustrophobic swoon. “That’s All She Wrote,” a Dr. Luke production featuring Eminem, embodies the restless paranoia of Recovery. Pharrell offers T.I. another “Grindin”-retread in “Amazing.” And there’s even a moment of backpacker boombap on Jake One’s intoxicating “Salute.”
Of course, T.I. raps marvelously on each one of these, especially owning “Salute,” but this version of T.I. — the hip-hop maven, the “candle guy” who can guest on a song with Kid Rock and Martina McBride without sustaining a single dent to his reputation — was not who we were missing for the past year and a half, and he’s not who we’ll miss for most of 2011. The T.I. who will be missed is the one who surfs a stack of DJ Toomp synthesizers better than anyone around, who blows your hair back with verbal dexterity one moment, brutal blunt force the next, who surveys the entire southern region and has the guts to crown himself the king of it.
The best place to find that T.I. in 2010 is the mixtape he put out earlier this year, the frustratingly titled Fuck a Mixtape. Yes, that album was subject to some of the same mistakes in pop outreach (particularly the autotune ballad “Got Your Back,” which thankfully bombed on the charts), but at least it brought the bangers too: “Yeah,” with Lil Wayne, “Ready Set Go” with Killer Mike, the bulldozing “Welcome Back to the Trap.”
It’s certainly easier to imagine King Uncaged as the brilliant phantom album T.I. would have made had he not been arrested, and look at No Mercy as a necessary compromising of T.I.’s artistic principles. But I’m not so sure T.I. has any such principles, or that he ever has. As capable as he may be of greatness, he seems as likely to fritter his away talent on ill-advised excursions. And unlike those of Kanye, or even Nas or Jay-Z, T.I.’s ill-advised excursions aren’t even the kind that make you want to scratch your head; they make you want to cover your eyes. And so No Mercy is a valley, not a peak, in a career that has seen plenty of both.