T.I. Is Starting to Scare Me
Had the album of the year, Grammy or not
A long time ago, a young rapper named T.I.P. had to change his name because there was already another rapper named Q-Tip. So he became T.I., and since then he's spun that change into a weird split-personality gimmick, acting like he's really two different people. Multiple personalities are nothing new in rap, but the T.I.-vs.-T.I.P. split is pretty unique in that T.I. and T.I.P. don't actually seem to be too different from each other. If you listen to T.I.'s interviews, T.I. is that level-headed business-minded half of his persona, and T.I.P. is the one who keeps almost getting sent to jail. Supposedly, he's either one or the other at pretty much every hour of the day, but we don't know which one recorded "What You Know" or "Motivation" or "Rubber Band Man." There's already a funny Narrowcast entry about this, but the differences between the two personas are so tiny that they barely exist, at least to those of us not personally acquainted with Clifford Harris. T.I. wears slightly fancier shirts, and T.I.P. makes slightly funnier scowl-faces, but that doesn't exactly make for two completely different people. T.I. first explored the split on "T.I. vs. T.I.P.," a track on the 2003 album Trap Muzik, and it turned out to work pretty well as a song-concept for four minutes, even if both personas rapped in almost the same voice. In the cover story of the new XXL, T.I. makes an interesting point about how living through adversity can force someone to be adaptable. It might be a stretch, but that idea isn't too far removed from W.E.B. DuBois' concept of double consciousness. As a rap star, T.I. is in an unstable and untenable position; his image demands that he be hard and rough and violent, and his career demands that he be cool-headed and even-tempered and accessible. This is interesting stuff, but I'm not sure it's interesting enough to support a concept-album from maybe the most popular rapper in the world.
I'm nervous about T.I. Vs. T.I.P., the next T.I. album. King was my favorite album of last year, partly because throughout T.I. evinced a sort of dominant swagger that barely ever betrayed a hint of vulnerability. "Big Shit Poppin'," the new T.I. single, seems to be going for the same sort of thing, but it has none of the gargantuan force of "What You Know," and that's a problem. Mannie Fresh's chunky pianos and squealing rock guitars shoot for grandeur but end up sounding flat and uninspired. The projected second single, the Wyclef collaboration "You Know What It Is," has a supple, relaxed grace, and it's a step in the right direction, but he still doesn't sound like he's about to swallow the world. Both of them would've worked perfectly well as second-half album-tracks on King, but neither one really sounds like a hit. "Big Shit Poppin'" sank without a trace on radio, and the same thing could very well happen to "You Know What It Is." Maybe my alarm here is misplaced. T.I. hasn't always been great at picking singles; "24's" was, after all, the first single from Trap Muzik, and it was one of the worst songs from that album. But what really worries me about T.I. Vs. T.I.P. is the concept-album structure that T.I. outlines in the new XXL: a bunch of T.I.P. songs, a bunch of T.I. songs, and a bunch of songs with the two of them talking to each other. In the magazine, he talks about how he wants to set himself out from the rest of the pack forever with this album. If he pulls it off, it could be great. But he wouldn't be the first artist to follow up a breakout success with an overambitious concept-album follow-up that fell on its face.
King sold more than any other rap album last year, which makes T.I. one of the few dependable stars rap has left. That's a whole lot of pressure for one guy. It makes sense that he'd want to explore that pressure artistically, but T.I. is usually at his best on tracks like "What You Know," songs where he sounds larger-than-life and invincible. On Trap Muzik, he had a few really moving songs about self-doubt and sadness and frustration, songs like "I Still Luv You" and "Be Better Than Me." When he recorded those songs, though, he wasn't really famous, and his problems were relatable, everyday ones. For the most part, those don't seem to be his problems anymore. If he starts complaining about how he wants to wild out and fuck shit up and photo shoots, he's going to lose me. In the "Big Shit Poppin'" video and in a couple of therapist's-office YouTube clips, he plays T.I. and T.I.P. arguing with each other, but at this point he's barely a good enough actor to play one character. And so right now, all I'm really hoping of T.I. Vs. T.I.P. is that it'll be another solid T.I. album. That's really all I want. I hope it's not too much to ask.