There is an African proverb that declares “smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.” For the self proclaimed “King of the South,” that proverb rings true throughout his latest offering, Paper Trail. After suffering through trials and tribulations, being incarcerated and losing friends and a daughter to the darkness of death, it’s clear that the seas have been far from smooth for the emcee. But, after surviving the turmoil and making a new album, T.I. [click to read] set out to demand recognition through the release of emotional tension and of course, to continue building upon his collection of rubber bands.
Shedding the “just a trapper” label, T.I. once again proves doubters wrong as he flat out raps to start off the album with the voracious tracks “56 Barz,” and “I’m Illy.” Adding autobiographical material, Tip rips through a slew of tracks with a fury. Delving into his personal struggles, he explains his arrest (“Ready for Whatever”), discusses his growth (“Live Your Life”), establishes resilience (“No Matter What” [click to listen], and describes the cost of fame (“My Life Your Entertainment”). He goes in even further as he travels down memory lane (“Slide Show”), and goes on to pen a “One Love” type letter to an incarcerated comrade (“You Ain’t Missin’ Nothin'”). Utilizing a quick flow, he allows pen to hit the paper with true introspection over unblemished percussion on “Dead & Gone,” where he effortlessly weaves through stories to unveil a new man and a new mind state.
For all of the lyrical dexterity displayed deftly throughout the album, T.I. has the instrumentation laid down to match. Through the contributions of DJ Toomp [click to read], Just Blaze, Kanye West, Drumma Boy and others, T.I. is given ample opportunity to unleash on wax. The album excels with production that is more bangin’ than somber, but balanced enough to allow for the lyrical downpour. For instance, “No Matter What” may have the lyrics to inspire, but the production elevates it to become a potent anthem for strength through adversity. The production assists him on more than one occasion and only magnifies the lyrical content, which helps the message of the album.
He’s also got a slew of guests to help the effort. His supporting cast includes Kanye West, Lil Wayne [click to read], Jay-Z [click to read], Rhianna, Usher [click to read], John Legend and B.o.B. [click to read] in addition to great, yet surprising inclusions from Justin Timberlake and former foe Ludacris [click to read]. With great acts to back him, Tip is never lost and remains the prominent star of the show.
When Tip becomes a sugar daddy on “Whatever You Like” [click to listen] or spits game on “Porn Star,” the message is lost but some fans (mainly the ladies) may be pleased. After all, he’s gotta keep the registers ringing. With that understood, some of the replay value is lost there and the artistic prowess praised is also lessened. Some skip worthy tracks fall near the third quarter of the album, but he makes up for it with the forth by continuing to give more of himself to the music. Still, songs like “Swing Ya Rag,” “Porn Star” and “Every Chance I Get” seem out of place here. The filler tracks don’t support proclamations of kingdom ownership.
Nevertheless, after the havoc and hardship, Paper Trail shows that T.I. rose to pen some of his most honest songs ever, painting better pictures over beats and creating hits without always having to bend. Consistent with his resume, Paper Trail is a premium effort with only a few missteps but many bright spots. Though it may have been a rough year, one that saw him face the unpleasant, unsympathetic waves of life, one can’t ignore the outcome. Skillful, indeed.