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T.I.
Paper trail Alex Macpherson , October 13th, 2008 12:29

TI Paper Trail

Written and recorded while under house arrest on firearms charges, T.I.'s sixth full-length finds the smooth-tongued charmer of Southern rap at something of a crossroads. 2006's King was his third stellar album in a row, and one which - boosted by the casually triumphant single 'What You Know' - seemed to confirm him as a genuine crossover star. But 2007 found T.I. spectacularly fail to build on this success: the concept album T.I. vs T.I.P., in theory an attempt to reconcile his gangsta and gentleman personae, fell flat; and then came those firearms convictions, for which T.I. still has to serve a year's jail term. On Paper Trail, then, he has a lot to prove.

He comes out firing: the opening double whammy of '56 Bars' and 'I'm Illy' is a thrill, T.I. spitting rapidfire bars and doing a terrific impression of freestyling for his life. Thence, though, the album embarks on a series of peaks and troughs which leave the impression that T.I. isn't quite sure what he wants out of Paper Trail, and has consequently decided to cover all bases at once. He dwells on the firearms case at length - excessive length, at times. 'Ready For Whatever' is expositional to a fault, going over the reasons and justifications for his actions in tedious detail. On the other hand, 'No Matter What' covers much the same ground, but in opting for a less specific take on the situation, its casually swaggering exorcism of past adversity manages to resound far more effectively.

There are some odd nods towards the pop market via heavy samples. It's a tactic which has worked for T.I. before, most notably on 2006's 'Why You Wanna', which sampled Crystal Waters' house hit 'Gypsy Woman' to terrifically slinky effect. There's little wrong with the ideas behind Paper Trail's two most sample-heavy singles: on 'Swagga Like Us', an all-star heavyweight cast rides a booming loop of M.I.A.'s 'Paper Planes', currently the track of choice for rap freestyles; while 'Live Your Life' jumps on the trend for exhuming unlikely Eurodance novelties for recontextualisation in hip-hop, this time lifting the hook from novelty Romanian boy band O-Zone's 'Dragostea Din Tei'.

Neither of those tracks come off, though. The idea of gathering T.I., Jay-Z, Lil' Wayne and Kanye West on one track is on paper. On record, Jay-Z is as tedious as anyone who's paid attention to his musical output in recent years (as opposed to his Glastonbury greatest hits set) would expect. T.I. himself pays long-winded tribute to his guests, then follows it with some instantly forgettable couplets. Wayne and West are both on immense creative rolls and easily outshine the main turns, but it's hard to shake the impression that both have phoned their verses in, safe in the knowledge that they each have approximately 50 superior verses in the past year alone. Meanwhile, 'Live Your Life' is sabotaged by the decision to slather Rihanna's guest vocals in Autotune, rendering her already-flat voice unlistenable, and the fact that no recontextualisation will ever be enough to stop 'Dragostea Din Tei' being irredeemably naff.

T.I. finds himself on safer ground when reprising tried and trusted sounds. 'Whatever You Like' is essentially 'What You Know' reprised for the ladies: T.I.'s signature sing-song Southern drawl is at its knee-weakening best here, even with lines like "Brains so good, could've sworn you went to college". Elsewhere, 'Swing Ya Rag' brings Swizz Beatz back on board for superb jitterbug-hop action; it sounds a lot like T.I.'s 2004 classic 'Bring 'Em Out', but given that 'Bring 'Em Out' is one of the best hip-hop singles of the decade, this is fine. Curiously, the best track leaked this summer from the Paper Trail sessions failed to make the album's count: 'Let My Beat Pound' is a menacing electro banger built around a wildly oscillating melody and bumping, tactile 808. T.I. takes on the beat with ease, casually adapting his flow to its demands; it's easily the finest, most exciting track T.I. has cut since 'What You Know', and its absence from the album is inexplicable.

Paper Trail, then is less an unqualified triumph than part damage control, part consolidation. It restores some of the lustre to T.I.'s reputation and will be a useful source of chart successes without scaling any particular heights - its finest moments find T.I. at his most generic - but given circumstances, its patchiness is less disappointment, more relief.

Alex Macpherson

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