Two winters ago, T.I. went away on a parole violation. His parting gift: No Mercy, an overstaffed slog that wasted Kanye West and Scarface in the first 10 minutes alone. Post-incarceration “atonement” Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head is unlikely to reimburse those misspent millions.
In his not-so-distant heyday, Clifford Harris could let off a spleen-rupturing punch, then lull you to a sweet sleep in the drawly voice of a balladeer; he was both a trap rapper’s trap rapper and a viable romantic lead. No Hooks—excuse us, No Mercy—threw people because it elided the swagger that was once T.I.’s lifeline. The album made poorly asserted plays at house music (or something like it), mook-metal and No Doubt mall-pop. If there were far fewer traditional bangers than on earlier T.I. albums, that wasn’t an accident. He really, really wanted out of Southern rap.
On No Mercy and 2008’s Paper Trail, T.I. was East Coast-lite, enunciating extra clearly so as to not inflame anti-Confederate vigilantes in New York. Those albums were ill-fitting, concessionary and almost strangling as a result. Trouble Man’s “G Season” reintroduces that distractingly clean diction, but mostly T.I. raps under the beat in a timid, toneless mumble. He never dares speak up, not even when prompted by freer-wheeling guests. (The diminished Lil Wayne, who at this point probably couldn’t tell you how far to stand from the mic, bests T.I. handily on “Ball.”) Even Tip’s more engaged flows are canceled out by a weird thoughtlessness in word choice; “I’m clean as a bar of soap” is an actual line here. Trouble Man fulfills all that talk of “prioritizing horribly” on “Live Your Life.”
T.I. used to hit even familiar storytelling beats with pungent bravura. He’d told and retold “Bankhead” a million times before King came out, but the track still haunts. On Trouble Man, the dethroned King of the South repeats himself because he’s tired and shopworn and miserable. “Hello,” which takes its name from the last song on King, might be the sorriest do-over in hip-hop history. It would kill at a retirement-home water aerobics class and nowhere else.
Trouble Man is less senile in general than “Hello,” but for too many of the album’s 71 minutes, we listen in horror as T.I., 32, tries flaccidly to get down with the kids. In fact, few hip-hop albums of the EDM era have taken to EDM quite this completely. (Pitbull and Flo Rida don’t count.) T.I. isn’t wrong in thinking that pitchy synths and harsh low-ends are what American audiences like, God help us. But he demands a sort of distended abrasiveness from producers that would never try this shit left to their own advices. Where would DJ Toomp get the impulse to process his guitars through ejaculatory Auto-Tune cheese? Why would the normally centered Rico Live compile every MPC sound technologically available into an unshapely mess of agit-electro, as he does on “Ball”?
Lastly, try to make sense of this fucking equation: the unsexy chords of power rock plus the lounge lizardry of Akon. No luck? Take it up with Atlantic, who incredulously sanctioned “Wonderful Life.”
In fairness, Trouble Man wakes up from time to time. “Wildlife” is strangely heartsick for a song about blunts, but the track’s cooled filter sounds and robotic pulse jibe with guest A$AP Rocky, who sounds dead a lot of the time anyway. And on “Sorry,” dignified walking pianos and courtly horns spur the best Andre 3000 verse in a good 12 years. “What should I be sorry for?” asks the chorus. Trouble Man would be a start.