It feels like it wasn't all that long ago when a skinny Atlanta kid with attitude started to burn up the airwaves with early-career favorites like "Rubberband Man" and "Let's Get Away." But that was over a decade ago, and now T.I. is a seasoned vet who has entered a rare class of consistency and longevity, with his ninth album, Paperwork, out on Tuesday.
Over that span, he's grown to become one of rap's most well-rounded artists -- mature without losing his sense of where he's from, honest to his own experiences without sacrificing being relatable -- which he proves again on Paperwork.
The release is not his most cohesive -- the subjects and sounds of the songs can at times feel disjointed when placed next to each other in the way that they are in the album's sequencing. But taken alone and then compared side-by-side, the tracks demonstrate the ways in which Tip has bucked the easy route of creating a musical caricature to instead paint the fullness of a man.
Really, though, he has no other choice. We've seen T.I.'s life play out in public in a way unrivaled by maybe any other rapper during this era. And not in the This Is What Kanye West Was Wearing At LAX paparazzi kind of way. Instead, we've seen him open up about his family life on his VH1 reality show, "T.I. and Tiny: The Family Hustle." On the other side, we've seen his trials and tribulations -- arrests, court dates, and jail time -- "thanks to TMZ, the AJC and Wikipedia," as he raps on 2010's "Get Back Up."
And so on Paperwork, he doesn't shy away.
On the soulful "Stay," not only does he delve into his own love life and marriage to Tiny, but he's unapologetic in his love towards his wife and -- bucking hip-hop's often warped understanding of masculinity that lionizes the smash and dash and emotional detachment -- is not ashamed to beg her to stick around.
"Private Show," featuring Chris Brown, offers a bit of the other side of that coin. It doesn't find the King of the South rapping about trysts with multiple women, but where "Stay" is built around emotional vulnerability, "Private Show" brings the physical to the forefront: "Imagine hanging half way off the mattress while your ass is moving/ Up and down, back and forth," T.I raps, while Breezy's chorus pleads, "Girl take it off for me, you know just what I want."
And though he's a well-off family man, the Grand Hustle CEO won't completely shed the life in the trap -- or, at least, the mentality he learned there -- that raised him. "If you don't know me let me tell you somethin', shawty/ Still got them choppers, make you run from it," he boasts on the Jeezy-assisted "G Sh--."
But it's not simply empty flexing. Later, on "New National Anthem," he tries to unpack the why behind the rampant gun violence to which he and so many others have grown so accustomed. He calls the United States the "Land of the Handgun, Home of the Shotgun," laments that he "was raised in a decade of hate, young n---a/ Always dodging polices because they hate young n---as," and pleads that, "we are a product of the environment you placed us in" -- all while reminding that his impeccable flow, at its finest, is second to none.
With "On Doe, On Phil" and "Light 'Em Up (RIP Doe B)," he comes at the topic from a third angle, honoring friends who have been lost to gun violence. It's something he's done before, on tracks like "Live in the Sky" and "Dead and Gone," and, for as long as he's living in the "Land of the Handgun," something he'll unfortunately probably have to do again.
But he'll be fully capable. Just like he will be when talking about family, social issues, the streets or whatever else might be going on in the life of Clifford Harris.