Who would’ve thought that, even a year ago, T.I. would become a rapper who will almost certainly go down in history as the inspirational, R&B-inflected posi-rap king–the prom don, the graduation-speaker type whom parents will eagerly recommend to their kids. As far back as the ’90s Tip was being arrested for everything a person could be arrested for. His drug-dealer backstory is among the most bulletproof in rap–nobody doubts it. His incredibly long rap sheet is a matter of public record. “Rubberband Man,” the first monster single he ever had, was strictly drug dealer slang. His feuds with other rappers have all taken place in real life: gunfights with Lil Flip, punching Ludacris’s manager in the face in 2007, and as recently as last year, shooting an entire video in Shawty Lo’s housing project, a provocation that led to a massively violent brawl at last year’s Dirty Awards. Oh, and he’s going to jail this month–for purchasing a whole armory’s worth of machine guns back in 2007.
Since then, though, he’s found by far the biggest success of his career, and not through any tabloid means–Road to Redemption, his MTV scared-straight reality TV show, is not what made “Whatever You Like,” “Live Your Life,” and, more recently, the Timberlake-featuring “Dead and Gone” such smash records. T.I. has found a lane no one ever would’ve imagined he’d find: big soaring choruses, lyrics full of decidedly unmacho soul-searching, lots of blunt self-disclosure, a knack for telling finely observed stories he never quite had before, and a comfort with a production way glossier than the David Banner-type stuff he used to murder. And these songs are good–sappy, crossover in a way a lot of rap fans are probably uncomfortable with, but undeniably catchy and also real, in the sense that T.I. seems less gunning for pop hits than cleaning out his closet. It’s a mode you can already hear tons of other rappers–Busta Rhymes and Maino, to name two unlikely ones–rip off.
“Don’t Forget,” his newest Mary J. Blige-featuring anthem–this song surely has all kinds of designs on Summer 2009–is very much like his last three or four best songs: triumphant, a little sad, soaring, personal, and anchored by synth-heavy production (speculation says Polow Da Don did the track) and a tremendous singer on the hook. It’s about all sorts of anxiety that T.I. might actually happen to be feeling–what happens to your girl when you go jail, what might happen to your spot when you disappear for a year, and so on. This guy is in a really amazing zone–even if it remains a totally unlikely one.
T.I. feat. Mary J Blige – “Don’t Forget” [Nah Right]