T.I. vs. T.I.P.
s if following up his quintessential album wasn’t enough of a challenge, T.I. vs. T.I.P. is T.I.’s K2 with its dubious "concept" (see also: Sweat/Suit, Split Personality, or even the track of the same name from 2003) and even more dubious personnel decisions. The question is this: is T.I. ambitious and confident enough to think that he can court disaster and buck the trends of history? Or is he aware of every one of these pitfalls and simply doesn’t care because old critical standards no longer apply to him?
More likely, it’s another in a long line of audacious power moves that followed King, an album that, like Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, proved that a few undeniable bangers, a decent news angle, and billion-dollar budget beats are more than enough for commercial and muso dominance when hip-hop is faced with a superstar vacuum. He could do no wrong in 2006, but coronation wasn’t enough. Clifford Harris wants to be the sun, literally the object which hip-hop revolves around. The fact that this situation sounds a lot like Jay-Z post-Blueprint makes my job a lot easier, since T.I has skipped past making Best Of Both Worlds II with Justin Timberlake and hastily spat out a record whose greatest achievement is streamlining the major flaws of Blueprint 2 into a single disc; anticlimactic production, poor collaborative choices, dud singles, and a nasty hateful streak fronting as emotional complexity.
OK, the much pilloried “concept.” It’s all but summed up completely within the span of album highlight “Respect My Hustle” (“you can beat a hundred cases, lose one, and you fall”), and if you’re wise, you won’t let the fact that this isn’t exactly A Prince Among Thieves bother you as much as it might. Just about everyone reading this review has heard a Biggie, 2Pac, or Jay-Z CD and is more than familiar with the duality of ghetto superstardom; you don’t need those three confusing but mercifully short skit-raps to fill in the blanks.
For all the event-planning that went into this album, it still sounds strangely under-funded, rife with red-level treble and keyboards on loan from Beats by the Pound. “Help Is Coming” should be the triumphant clarion call that cleaves the record in half; instead, it relies on the same bullshit tautology last heard on Young Buck’s “South Ain’t Lyrical” (we gettin' money=hip-hop is alive) and a Just Blaze beat whose ESPN Primetime sample comes off like a curdled version of Cam’ron’s “Let Me Know.” There’s nothing that isn’t lazy about “Da Dopeman,” from the mirror-posing hook (“I’m the dopeman n***a," repeat), to the aluminum trap clap beat to the sub-Kanye conspiracy theorizing of the last verse. For chrissakes, it’s called “Da Dopeman.”
If you’re suffering withdrawal from being an amateur NBA draftnik, put on your A&R cap and just take a look at the guest list here. Would you bog hip-hop's flagship down with all this dead weight? It’s 2007—why would T.I. need guest verses from Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes and a predictably dour beat from Eminem? Why would he even want them? Thing is, “Watch What You’re Saying” doesn’t even work as a torch passing, since Jay-Z actually manages to get off a better verse. And how does one even begin to explain the presence of Wyclef Jean, when you know he'll blow his umpteenth chance at redemption by guilelessly guessing at trends. “My Swag” serves up some wooden Hot Chip for T.I. to infinitely corkscrew into, and what’s with constantly interrupting your new sugar daddy by yelling “BLOOODCLAAAT” in an exaggerated patois that sounds like Haiti's answer to Kings of Leon? Is that what the kids want?
Perhaps if you're of a certain mindset, you can find T.I.'s mudslide of lyrics profound despite never being as knee-slapping bad as Jeezy or really quotable or fun either. Skills most often attributed to premiere MC’s like deft wordplay, vivid storytelling, emotional resonance, salient talking points? These are few and far between on T.I. vs. T.I.P., even if the man remains an impressive technician who sounds at home on any beat you can give him. Except during the many times here where the words tumbling out of his mouth turn into mush amidst a torrential shower of hi-hats, there’s an inherent appeal in his droopy drawl that more often makes this record boring at its worst instead of being a more opulent New Joc City. Sure he’s not saying much, but it sounds kinda good…but is that really enough, considering that's the same logic dope boy apologists use to dismiss Black Thought? I mean, John Mayer’s also a pretty good technician when it comes to blues guitar, but who stole the soul?
That’s the biggest failing of T.I. vs. T.I.P.: though his singles are obsessed with knowledge of self and others, during the span of a seemingly endless album that centers around an identity crisis, T.I. mostly fails to realize the difference between introspection and self-absorption. It's more of a hastily assembled construct grafted onto the persona of a generic trap star who doesn't seem capable of taking real artistic chances. In his mind, anyone who criticizes T.I. is “just another hater who’s broke again,” waiting for some backpacker epiphany that will never come, like Little Brother becoming commercially relevant or Freddie Foxxx coming out of hiding to lyrically knuckle this guy down. It's like T.I.'s been speaking in code to us all along: What you know about that? You know what it is. You don’t know me. But you know what? After spending hours with T.I. vs. T.I.P. chasm-like emptiness, I can’t see why anyone would care.