Not gone yet
T.I. has had some time to think. Since his ridiculously dumb machine-gun arrest last fall, he’s been on house arrest, lounging around his mansion in his bathrobe and slippers, possibly watching a whole lot of TV, occasionally issuing reassuring YouTube missives to his faithful. And working on music. For the first time since his debut album, T.I. is reportedly writing down his lyrics rather than arranging them in his head. We first heard the results on the remix of Lupe Fiasco’s “Superstar,” were Tip slip-slid his familiar slur all over the track with a newly joyous mastery. T.I. shared that track with Lupe and with Young Jeezy, both at or near the top of their respective games, and he managed to outdo the both of them by finding a way to fuse their best qualities: Lupe’s showily convoluted verbosity with Jeezy’s domineering confidence. That track emerged weeks before the the details of T.I.’s blessedly lenient plea-bargain became public, and already Tip sounded completely rested and refreshed. Last year’s T.I. vs. T.I.P., even with its handful of highlights, felt like a forced lurch toward introspection, but the T.I. on the “Superstar” remix was miles removed from that one, a near-miracle considering all the time he was then staring down. Well, that T.I. is apparently here for at least a little while longer. “No Matter What,” the first thing we’ve heard yet from the forthcoming album Paper Chase, leaked earlier this week (Nah Right has the mp3), and it might herald a new chapter in this guy’s artistic life. And given that his plea allowed him to take a whole bunch of personal time before he starts serving his year in prison (enough time, incredibly, to finish his album and to film a role in some bank-heist movie) we’ll probably get to hear a whole lot more of this T.I. I’m seriously amped about it.
“No Matter What” is the first great T.I. song since the last great T.I. song (“Hurt,” if you’re keeping score at home), and the track works by lacing the swaggering enormity of T.I.’s existing persona with a new sanguine introspection. Though he never comes close to apologizing for his crimes, there’s a regretful/not-regretful warmth in his voice throughout the track, like a movie gangster looking back heartsick on a lifetime of unforgivable sins but still unable to repress an inward half-smile before the end-credits fade-out. T.I. presents his self-inflicted trials as setbacks to be overcome on a quest toward immortality, a stance that would be totally disingenuous if he didn’t sell it so well. T.I., after-all, is really good at this sort of self-help talk; not even Jeezy can invest get-money talk with this guy’s level of all-consuming urgency. “Facing all kind of time but smile like I’m fine / Brag with such passion and shine without trying,” he says at the beginning, and we’re led to believe from the outset that that level of confidence is a noble and righteous thing. He then goes on to paint those of us who commented on what looked like a man’s life unraveling publicly as doubters to be smilingly brushed off: “You let the blog sites and the magazines tell it / I’m sure to be in jail until 2027.” And the chorus, where he layers his voice up into an anthemic rumble, drives that affirmation home: “Still I stand, no matter what, people / And here I am, no matter what.” And all of a sudden it’s too easy to forget that I’m listening to someone who illegally bought machine-guns that I can’t imagine he really needed. Moralistic reservations wilt in the light of this kind of radiant certainty.
And it sure doesn’t hurt that T.I. sounds as technically in-command as he does here, finding all sorts of great little ways to slide unshowy internal rhymes into his lines: “That why the dope boys and the misfits feel it / This still his city as long as Tip still livin’, listen.” Details on the track itself are sparse, but Sean Fennessey reports here that it probably comes from Danja. If it’s a Danja track, we should commend that guy for so easily inhabiting the sort of bluesy, organic Southern rap that T.I. worked so hard on Trap Muzik: triumphant snare-rolls, sustained organ-sighs, everything unfolding at a slow, unrushed lope. The only space-pop element of the track is a weird vwerping synth-ping that really doesn’t add anything to the track, but that’s the tiniest of quibbles, and thank God T.I. didn’t try to come back with trance-pop or whatever. “No Matter What” is only one song, and it could be a total red herring on a slapped-together mess of an album; it is, after all, coming right after T.I. vs. T.I.P. But I’m hoping it turns out to be a sign of a new direction, the first indication that T.I. might be one of those rare rap figures whose voice actually gains force and resonance as he grows older.