T.I. has made a career of excelling when chips are down – and also of getting complacent when he’s at the top. Improving on every album leading up to 2004’s Urban Legend, the self-proclaimed “King of the South,” still wasn’t satisfied despite breaking through to the public consciousness. This motivation led him to make 2006’s King, by far the project most responsible for making him one of Rap’s superstars. But complacency set in, leading a quick turn-around and an awful album in T.I. vs. T.I.P. Just the same, as rubber-band men will tend to do, Tip, facing federal charges and an unsure future, bounced back with arguably his best release, Paper Trail.

So where does T.I. find himself in 2010 – hungry or complacent? Arguments could be made for either side: is T.I. complacent because his fans simply want to hear more music from him, or is he hungry, trying to reclaim his throne following a stint in prison?

“Welcome to the World” is not nearly as cordial an introduction as the title suggests, as T.I. and Kanye West sound like they’re having a terrible day, and the listener is responsible and must bear the brunt of their respective wraths. “That’s All She Wrote” reunites T.I. and Eminem, and the results are so much better than 2007’s “Touchdown” that you’d be amazed that the same people were responsible for both cuts. Dr. Luke’s has been on the pop tip lately, but his production here is mean, suiting both emcee’s moods. Shady and Tip’s back-and-forth reaches incredible heights here, and makes for one of the album’s high points.

The album’s title track is equally grandiose, with T.I. zeroing in with laser-like focus: “My mama loved me more than I do / She said, ‘Your pop was just like you / Trapped in a vicious cycle / Jesus’ youngest disciple / Tell the judge if he throw the book at me, make it the bible / Start calling myself The King for lack of a better title / Loyal beyond belief to my detriment, it’s so vital / I change or blow opportunities like a choir recital / …Well it’s unfortunate the orphanage couldn’t keep up the mortgages / Kid go to school stupid, they teachers ignoring it … / Consumed with the same way of life I left / Everything I know now learned by myself / All you see are the whips, the Maseratis, Ferraris / So they don’t sympathize, don’t nobody feel sorry / No mercy”

“Strip” is really the album’s first misstep (impressive considering it’s the eighth track). Trey Songz is the culprit here, now laying claim to the comically-oversexual throne that R. Kelly held for so many years. Despite a fair effort from T.I., not to mention an unexpectedly solid one from Young Dro, Songz makes this one intolerable. T.I. surprisingly reaches out to underground favorite Jake One for “Salute,” and it turns out to be a wise decision. Bare percussion, soft Soul samples and light synths provide the perfect backdrop for Clifford to roar, “Fuck Rap! I got swag for sale.”

“Amazing” is The Neptunes’ second contribution to the album, and it sounds as if T.I. went to Pharrell and Chad and requested the sound that the ‘Tunes usually reserve for the Clipse. That’s not to relegate the track to a cheap imitation in some way. Quite the contrary – the simple drum arrangements highlighted by an unnerving xylophone are perfectly complimented by T.I.’s ominous rhymes and subdued delivery. “Everything On Me” is a throwback to something you could’ve heard on King, which makes a bit out of place here. The usually-reliable Danja’s saxophone-infused concoction certainly bangs, but it just doesn’t belong. The album follows favorably with the Drake-assisted “Poppin’ Bottles” , but “Lay Me Down” is a nightmare, sounding far too much like “Music Make Me Lose Control.” Fortunately, T.I. picks a great closer, as talented vocalist Christina Aguilera lends her assistance on while the Atlanta native waxes about how his career looks in retrospect.

T.I. has always had trouble with maintaining a theme, evinced by T.I. vs. T.I.P.’s shockingly lacking exploration of the rapper’s battling personalities or intuitions. He also apparently thinks that No Mercy is the third entry in a trilogy, showing that his grasp on themes is tenuous at best. Accordingly, it’s surprising T.I. maintains a premise predicated on the notion of guilt, mistake and repentance throughout nearly the entire release. No Mercy takes T.I.’s recent experiences and frustrations, and effectively bottles them up into a potent and complete work. From the epic production to T.I.’s furious rhymes and flows, framed perfectly within the notion of righteous redemption (though it is pretty hilarious to hear T.I. swear “never again” on several tracks, given his pending jail time), T.I. has released arguably his most focused effort to date.