Urban Legend (Chopped & Screwed)
Atlantic / Grand Hustle
y any and all accounts, Urban Legend shouldn’t have been a good record. Hastily recorded as part of T.I.’s work release from a probation-violation jail bid, Urban Legend was the flagship album in Atlantic’s rejuvenated rap division and sure as hell looked like it. We’re talking an over abundance of out of place cameos—Lil’ Kim? Lil’Wayne? And doesn’t Nelly seem like the kind of guy T.I.P would beat down? Sonic cohesion was nil; Atlantic tossed seemingly every “top-shelf” producer together—Mannie Fresh, the Neptunes, Lil’ Jon, Jazzie Pha—with no regard to a unifying aesthetic behind the boards.
And that should’ve been the silver bullet. T.I.’s best jams never sounded like “Jams” in the first place. Hearing Trap Muzik’s “Rubber Band Man” and the chant of “Ay, who I'm is? / Rubber band man / Wild as the Taliban / 9 in my right, 45 in my other hand,” didn’t instantly place you in some awkward Sigma Chi basement party. You could’ve easily been sitting outside Lennox Square in a candy-painted Cutlass and a Bob McAdoo jersey. Or at least you think you could be.
T.I saved Urban Legend because he sounded like he always does—like he could give a fuck about almost everything.
He likes his money, his ability, and has a refreshing take on his place in the world. No slavish 2Pac-must-redeem-the-world zeal here. T.I. just has ridiculous breath control, narrative ability, truckloads of languid charm, and a Rakim-like knack for syntax.
No big surprise then that Houston’s historic Swisha House, the Champagne region of chopping and screwing, lets Paul Wall take the unconventional, strikingly minimalist approach to chopping up Urban Legend. Wall, a soon to be crossover star in his own right, doesn’t really make his presence known as DJ-supreme on this outing; he’s content to give a terse intro, drag the melodies into a trench of syrup and presumably continue to drive the Internet nuts.
Wall decelerates the tiny effects—the round horn section on “What They Do,” the mechanical strings on “Get Loose,” the twilight bells on “Prayin’ For Help”—stretches them out to dense, intuitive tones and drops them over each song like a veil.
If you think it sounds kind slightly surreal, well, you’re right. Done right, the whole “Chopping & Screwing” process is slyly exotic. You’re supposed to drink a borderline-hallucinogen, push your whip ultra-slow and savor a normally spitfire rap at Kelvin-scale chilliness? That’s one wicked Carlos Casteneda/Billy-The-Kid mash up.
Yeah, Wall’s universal-chop style means that “U Don’t Know Me” goes from a Swizz Beatz/New Orelans street funeral slap-around to a soggy, too-salty drum circle. True, Urban Legend (Chopped & Screwed)’s cameo-heavy roster means that D-list MC’s like Daz Dillinger and B.G. gets as much of the viscous, honey-slick treatment as T.I. Sure, if Wall had been more like DJ Michael Watts and really grabbed the reins in the studio, it could’ve sounded like Watts’ traditional, nocturnally-graceful radio session on Who Is Mike Jones? (Chopped & Screwed).
But don’t sweat that peripheral shit, T.I.’s voice was made for this. Always a notch on the feminine side, Chopped & Screwed injects some bass into T.I.’s baby-face style and makes couplets that look mature on paper—“Several years ago I told myself I solemnly swear / Forever be hard to kill, even harder to scare”—sound just as confident aloud. As simple as it sounds, slowing T.I.’s flow in this format lets you latch onto whole verses in each song. “Chillin’ With My Bitch,” originally a weak, synth-bubble love song, becomes a drawn-out beach-party, drowned with tropical, drowsy guitars, and T.I. effortlessly cataloging items from the block-hustler’s Robb Report.
One album, despite what Mike Jones is probably thinking right now, isn’t going to push the long-simmering Houston over the top, but working with out-of-state and icily-skilled rappers (like T.I.) only develops this compelling, layered and just plain exciting long- standing movement. Urban Legend (Chopped & Screwed) isn’t a pedigreed-Houston project, but fuck it, this whole Atlanta-Houston talent pipeline just might make Kanye sound obsolete in about four months.