T.I.’s politically charged Us or Else was released in September, and the six-track EP stands as one of the most potent releases of 2016. The Grand Hustle boss surprised fans by beefing it up into a 15-track album titled Us Or Else: Letter to the System. Tip adds a personal touch to the militant urgency infused throughout, ensuring this album is his most well-rounded in years.
The anti-establishment spirit of the EP is layered by T.I.’s views on religion. Police brutality, systemic racism and social responsibility are again on Tip’s mind, but so are his skepticism of organized religion while keeping a steadfast belief in Jesus Christ. As on the EP, his conviction drives the album’s spirit, making this album’s political cuts more than just obligatory objections to racism and injustice. “I’m a drop a line right here/Either I’m a be the dream Martin Luther King had or a nightmare,” he memorably rhymes on the country bouncin’ “Ah No No.” Even when he’s rapping about an issue that’s been well tread, such as the absurdity of Columbus Day on “I Believe,” Tip finds an intriguing way to get his point across: “What about Capone and Doc Holliday/Lucky Luciano John Gotti day/Bumpy Johnson and a Larry Hoover day/Happy Meech day, Happy Tookie day, Happy Hitler day, sound stupid, eh?” Such quips make the man’s two cents worth hearing.
It’s not all about the struggle, though. Some of the album’s best moments are when the Rubber Band Man emerges as a hood survivor. He revisits his dope dealing days on “Writer,” which features a stellar verse from B.o.B, and paints a picture of Magic City nights on “Picture Me Mobbin.” These joints add depth and personality to the album that the EP lacked.
T.I.’s past few albums have been plagued with a lack of musical cohesion, but Letter to the System manages to keep a congruent sound throughout thanks a thematic focus and wisely chosen collaborators. The bass-heavy “Ah No No” showcases T.I.’s ability to kick it over a modern trap beat. The steel-toed drums and piano keys ensure “War Zone” remains a sonic standout. And “Pain” is a relentless thumper that manages to remain smooth thanks to London Jae’s vocals. He is similarly silky on “Letter to the System,” which features a strong 16 from Translee. Killer Mike’s vicious turn on “40 Acres” remains intact, and it’s still blistering.
That the six songs from the EP are in the mix here does not damper their excellence or contribution to the overall album. However, they would have had more of an initial impact had they been rolled out all at once with the album. In time, this probably won’t matter. T.I. is not the first rapper to build off of previously released material. It helps that the rest of the album, save for the preachy “Lazy,” is so strong. And while the EP’s “Black Man,” and “War Zone,” remain two of the album’s best cuts, they are matched by “Letter to the System” and “Pain.” In any case, switching up the sequencing and ending with “I Swear” would have been more punctual for such a potent album.
Regardless, Us Or Else: Letter to the System equates in not only one of the year’s strongest full-length projects but in Tip’s discography as well. It’s a suitable blend of his personal views to package aware commentary of our turbulent times in the United States in 2016.