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T.I., ‘Trouble Man: Heavy is the Head,’ (Grand Hustle/Atlantic)

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: December 18, 2012
Label: Grand Hustle/Atlantic

The dilemma is “street cred” or “Hollywood.” These aren’t my words. They were taken from the “America’s Sweetheart” episode of T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle, wherein T.I. ponders whether a cameo at a Taylor Swift concert could mean career suicide. (He eventually opts to appear at the concert, shadowed by Nelly and Young Jeezy, who are all astounded by the deliciousness of the backstage chicken tenders.) The B plot concerns the Rubber Band Man, wild as the Taliban, agonizing over whether his teen daughter in the OMG Girlz is “Tweefing” (Twitter beef) and dating boys.

The point here isn’t necessarily to make cheap jokes at the expense of a VH1 Reality show that hybridizes Father Knows Best, The Queen of Jordan, and ATL, but rather to contextualize the dueling personalities that shadow aClifford “Tip” Harris, circa 2012. Of course, this is nothing new for the Atlanta-raised rapper. After transitioning from regional star to national icon with 2006’s King, he followed up with his alter-ego record, 2007’s T.I. vs. Tip, a Manichean struggle between the streets and the safety that his newfound celebrity afforded. How do you keep the hunger and slang of the trap when you can lunch with your agent in your own restaurant?

It’s an old story in rap, ever since LL Cool J flaunted his first doo-rags on In the House. In the genre’s history, few great rappers who transitioned to leading-man status have returned to sustain a vital hip-hop career. Maybe 2Pac, but he died before he had the chance to become the wicked foil to Will Smith. Maybe Eminem, if you call the movie where he played himself “acting.” But more common are guys like Ice Cube, Common, and Ludacris, who exist permanently suspended in a slippery crossover between Just Wright and just wrong.

The latter will get you further in the rap game. Without beef or drama, rappers (like many writers) often lack purpose. Nas only returned from a half-decade in the Sinai after Jay-Z told the entire world that he fucked his baby mama. Gucci Mane only really blew up after being arrested (and later cleared) in the murder of a man who had come to collect a bounty from Young Jeezy. Sometimes there are no new stories to tell — especially when your itinerary involves bouncing from meetings for VIP Premium Energy drinks, book signings for Trouble & Triumph: A Novel of Power & Beauty, and developing your Akoo Clothing Line.

So maybe it’s fortunate that Gucci and Alley Boy spent much of the summer taking shots at Tip as collateral damage in their feud with Young Jeezy. The conflict comes to a head on “Addresses,” a diss track on Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head, T.I.’s eighth studio record and arguably the most formidable he’s seemed since he first said hello to Hollywood. He calls out neither foe by name, but the hate is obvious and taunting. It won’t replace “Takeover,” but Tip and producer T-Minus get the tone right: He’s been frequently called the Southern Jay-Z for a reason. Even if he never registers as many quotables, he can match Hova’s effortless rap agility — few sound as smooth and snarling at the same time.

The subtext of the feud is that none of these rappers are likely to reclaim their spot as hottest in the Atlanta streets: Future and 2 Chainz are the kings now. Before that, it was Waka and Gucci. Credit T.I. for being wise enough to understand that he’s become an emperor: a household name, a brand who lost his Axe Body Spray endorsement the last time he went to jail. Trouble Man is his first album since that second bid; it finds him finally returning to the lane that he abandoned somewhere around the time he included two Wyclef Jean songs on T.I. vs. Tip. (Did we learn nothing from Can-i-Bus?). After largely forgetting DJ Toomp’s phone number for the last three albums, the pair return to their old baking-soda-and-Pyrex recipe on “Trap Back Jumpin”; over a Valkyries-on-Bankhead beat, T.I. raps the same hard white-into-cold-green rhymes that he’s traded in most successfully for the past decade. On his last few records, the “hard” songs felt like party favors handed out after all the Rihanna/Christina Aguilera/Justin Timberlake features. Here, they feel like the centerpiece.

During the year between his release from prison and the release of Trouble Man, T.I. released innumerable street and promo singles; he recorded more than 100 songs for this project, and what stuck feels purposeful. Befitting the album’s titular inspiration, “Introduction” samples Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” and finds T.I. snapping with the swagger of a man who could sell silver to Trinidad Jame$. Same with “G Season,” which somehow overcomes lines like you “Bitches call me Papa John / Because I keep that extra cheese.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t a few forced radio grabs: The Pink-smeared “Guns and Roses” sounds like Eminem whispered the idea to him in a dream, and “Wonderful Life” shatters the blissful, Akon-free cease-fire of late. But they’re exceptions: This is easily his most consistent album since King. Even the guest spots seem sagely selected to even out T.I.’s occasional tendency to double-time his way to easy listening. Meek Mill rap-shouts on “G Season” to effective ALL-CAPS effect. A$AP Rocky ginsu-chops a gorgeous No ID beat on “Wildside.” And “Ball” finds Tip and Lil Wayne bouncing over a “Triggerman” sample, inducing nostalgia for the days before we’d regrettably heard the latter say, “Suck a dick for some Trukfit.”

After being alternately incarcerated or chasing the fever dream of mega-stardom, T.I. has finally settled into his post-empire era. There’s no need to apologize for his malevolent streak, nor the need to caricature it out of insecurity. This is who he is now: a more refined version of the Rubber Band Man. You can’t keep the mayonnaise jar when the cameras are on you. He’s learned to embrace the message of Marvin Gaye’s original. Only three things in life are sure: taxes, death, and trouble.