Last year’s T.I vs T.I.P. — a quasi concept album attributed to both the gangster and gentleman personalities of Clifford “T.I.” Harris — was essentially a gimmick, a reminder that the refined businessman/actor/MC standing before the crowd today wasn’t that far removed from the ruthless street kid the man once was. But Paper Trail, coming as it does on the eve of the rapper’s year-long prison sentence for illegal weapons possessions, doesn’t need to work to remind anyone of the particular vagaries of T.I.’s lifestyle choices. And unlike T.I. vs T.I.P., it’s truly the product of a conflicted MC.
Harris would first like to remind us that despite it all he is doing quite well, thanks very much: “56 Barz” and “I’m Illy” are carefully constructed swagger demos. And then he gloriously blows all that detached cool with “Ready for Whatever,” the album’s best moment and a track that probably deserves its own individual review.
On King’s “Live in the Sky,” Tip touched on the unfortunate realities of his superstar life with a few pointed lines: “Fuck how many millions I got, nigga, so what if I’m hot/ When I got prices on my head, feds rushing my spot/ A million haters want me dead, forced to carry a gat/ But you a seven-time felon, whatch you doing with that?/ It’s a catch-22, either you lose or you lose.” But on “Ready,” he realizes a few lines aren’t going to cut it; he’s going to have to spell out for us exactly why he was armed to the teeth on the night of his arrest.
He’s touched on this before but has never so blatantly made it clear that this is not just hip-hop bluster. Ever since the death of his lifelong friend and personal assistant Philant Johnson in 2006, T.I. is convinced there are people out there waiting to kill him: “I’m dealing with depression from my partner dying next to me/ Think ’cause no one’s arrested they come for me eventually … not mentioning New Orleans niggas coming in the city/ Killing all summer long nobody pay attention.” He spends half a million dollars a year on security, he tells us. “Is it that hard to understand if you listen?" he asks, “Either die, go to jail, that’s a hell of a decision.” And, finally, he resigns himself to his fate: “I had straps in my ride, gotta go to prison.”
And then, as if we could just forget a startling conversational turn and return to the cocktail-party-bullshit chatter we were mindlessly enjoying just a few minutes earlier, T.I. abandons the confessional tack altogether for party rap and vaguely inspirational tunes. Sure, he does it well — lead singles “No Matter What” and “Whatever You Like” deserve every radio spin they’ve gotten, “Live Your Life” amazingly gets beyond a "Dragostea Din Tei" sample, and even the sort of icky “Porn Star” is fun after a few turns. But it’s not until a full third of the album has gone by, with the beef-airing “What’s Up, What’s Happening” (a track that, for the record, features the second time on Paper Trail that the previously unheard of phrase “blogsites” is used) that we finally get back to the fucked-up personal stuff that makes T.I. so much more than just a radio-pop archetype.
And it’s not until nearly the end of the album, on “You Ain’t Missin Nothing” — in which TI, seemingly addressing himself, doles out advice in the second person on how to handle a jail bid — that the MC gets back to dealing with the arrest. It’s supposed to be a hopeful song, an invocation to keep your head up, but it comes off as something else: “You only do two days in the joint," he lets us know, sounding queasy and pissed off and not at all sure of himself, “the day you get locked up and the day you go home.” And on what has been for the most part an impeccably executed commercial rap album, TI again reminds us what he’s really capable of.