It’s been fascinating to watch T.I. come into his own, especially since his is the kind of career that doesn’t happen often these days. Rappers rarely slow-boil anymore, building and nursing a craft over several albums and unfolding their complex personalities in the process. (T.I.’s buddy Lil Wayne is another notable exception.) T.I. has had one hell of an album arc since his low-key introduction of a debut, I’m Serious, in 2001. From there, the organic funk of Trap Muzik (2003) turned him into a force, and Urban Legend (2004) maintained his presence and birthed one of his most popular hits (the still-awesome “Bring ‘Em Out”). When King arrived last year, there was no need to elaborate: So earned was T.I.’s right to claim dominance that he only needed one word to explain it. T.I. walked into his new role with a mix of humility and confidence so admirable you’d think he planned it this way all along.
Where does all this put T.I. vs. T.I.P.? In a great place, actually. Despite being billed as some kind of exploration between T.I.’s conflicting personas — the reserved, cool-headed businessman and the go-all-out street hustler — T.I. vs. T.I.P. is less a psychological concept album and more an amalgamation of everything T.I. has done up to this point. And where you’d expect it to be choppy and unbalanced — complaints that have bogged down T.I.’s previous efforts — it’s the most cohesive and listenable record he’s made to date.
The album’s eighteen tracks are broken into three “acts.” I’m not sure how much of the alter-ego back-and-forth we’re supposed to buy into — I always thought that stuff applied to T.I.’s actual life, not his music — but there’s little to suggest we’re listening to one personality in a particular act and not the other. So where Vs. succeeds most is in its sequencing. The acts build to something bigger than what any of them could amount to on their own. It’s a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts: By itself, “Da Dopeman,” in Act I, is an 808-clapping throwaway. It’s a basic boast laid over a basic beat. But tucked between the reggae-rush of “You Know What It Is” and the Shaft-ed “Watch What You Say to Me,” it becomes ominous and strange, the piano notes trickling out during the declaratory chorus, a bright spot during an otherwise bleak outing.
Act II lifts the iron curtain, exposing something grand and colorful. The Just Blaze-produced “Help Is Coming” has T.I. trying to save hip-hop — how’s that for southern indifference to Hip Hop Is Dead rally cries? — and “My Swag” floats on easy synths and Wyclef Jean’s shuffle-step beat. “Show It to Me” breaks out a live jam with horns and popping percussion; Nelly’s elastic chatter is a perfect fit. “Don’t You Wanna Be High” follows, the token love-rap made tolerable through an intoxicating blend of ultra-smoothness and borderline cheesiness. And there’s no reason why the jerky static of “Touch Down,” featuring and produced by Eminem, should mesh with Tip’s relaxed, engulfing delivery. But it does, if only because Em tries to emulate T.I. and not the other way around.
Act III closes the album beautifully. It comprises just three tracks, but unlike the first two acts, each of the songs could stand as an individual manifesto. “Tell ‘Em I Said That” and “Respect This Hustle,” both produced by Timbaland protégé Danja, are topics T.I. has tread before, but here they’re polished — forceful, not forced. On “My Type,” the finale, Tip makes the connection between you and him feel more personal than ever, reflecting and apologizing and intertwining his life and career, eerily writing his own epitaph by the song’s (and album’s) end.
Throughout, T.I. is in top form — none of that “cool as a fan” nonsense he dropped on Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” — bending flows and digging words into the kind of beats that would throw lesser rappers off-course. Everything here, even the underwhelming lead singles (“Big Shit Poppin'” and “You Know What It Is”), smacks of T.I.’s unique energy. Everything is designed in his mold. Of course, that was the idea in the first place. Because when you battle yourself, you’re bound to win every time.