T.I.’s last album, T.I. vs. T.I.P., focused on the uninteresting duality of being both a menacing street dude and a successful pop star. A commercial and critical disappointment, it was nothing if not prescient: A few months following the LP’s 2007 release, the Atlanta rapper was caught with a cache of guns that would make the al-Sadr militia piss their pants in jealousy. Now, after accepting a plea bargain for nominal jail time and community service, T.I. makes it clear on his sixth effort which one he’d rather be. Spoilers ahead!
With few exceptions, Paper Trail is devoted to synthesizers, self-reflection, and separating T.I. from his roguish past. “Some move away to make a way/Not move away ’cause they afraid/Been thuggin’ all my life/Can’t say I don’t deserve to take a break,” he raps on “Live Your Life,” a weirdly winning song that merges sawing strings, Rihanna’s alien-insect vocals, and an interpolation of O-Zone’s “Dragostea Din Tei” (yes, the source material for that “Numa Numa Dance” YouTube clip with the rad fat kid). Elsewhere, T.I. delivers lines perfect for a parole-board hearing: Over the Tron arpeggios and arena-rock guitars of “Ready for Whatever,” he justifies his arsenal of weapons by way of paranoia: “I’m wrong and I knew it/My excuse is unimportant/I’m just trying to let you know I ain’t think I had a choice.”
It’s impossible to know if the guy is truly contrite or just keeping up appearances, but maturity is rarely rewarded in hip-hop. Jay-Z learned from Kingdom Come that distancing yourself from a romanticized criminal résumé estranges an artist from the audience that crowned you for flaunting that résumé in the first place. The method for reclaiming his throne, as T.I. sees it, is simply to rap really, really well. And he succeeds: His lyrics are sharp, his delivery precise. “Say goodbye to the fame and fortune, c’est la vie/What the game need with you? Nigga, they got me,” he spits on album opener “56 Barz,” a hook-free rant honest to its name. But resisting the urge to threaten listeners with unhinged, real-life violence, our reformed, defanged hero is often left railing against faceless rap upstarts—the hip-hop equivalent of a curmudgeon telling whippersnappers to get off of his lawn, dagnabbit. He sounds most invigorated when attacking Shawty Lo, a middling Atlanta rapper whose videotaped insults brought T.I.’s hood gravitas into question. On the roiling, Drumma Boy–produced “What Up, What’s Haapnin’,” T.I. recaptures his sneering arrogance: “I yelled ‘Bankhead’ and you felt left out/I ain’t mention your name, that’s what all this about?”
If he sounds better thrashing a tangible rival than musing on the complications of fame, it’s because T.I. has an underdeveloped sense of artistic license. Unlike most rappers, he’s not a good liar; when he mentioned AK-47s in song, he felt like he actually needed one or two leaning against the pool table. But now, with a legal imbroglio forcing him to at least impersonate a solid citizen, he’s lost his edginess. Until T.I. learns to craft gripping music without sacrificing his future on the altar of authenticity, we’ll cynically wonder if the wrong alter ego perished during his internal struggle.