Happy 10th Anniversary to T.I.’s sixth studio album Paper Trail, originally released September 30, 2008.
In 2008, T.I. was in pursuit of both artistic and personal redemption. The emcee had already cemented his status as King of the South with the release of two stellar albums: 2004's Urban Legend and 2006's King. Yet T.I.'s 2007 effort T.I. vs T.I.P. didn't receive the same praise as its predecessors. The LP suffered due to a flawed concept, and the setback came right as another Southern rapper in Lil Wayne was ascending into rap's royal class. T.I.'s place in the hip-hop hierarchy was at risk.
To make matters worse, T.I. was facing prison time. In October of 2007, T.I. was arrested and received charges for purchasing machine guns and silencers. The arrest happened hours before T.I. was set to perform at the BET Hip-Hop Awards. This timing sums up a trend in T.I.'s career: trouble in his private life delaying his triumphs in the public eye.
With pressure mounting in different areas of his life, T.I. could have stumbled further and completely fallen out of grace. But one legal break helped T.I. remain on his feet. He reached a plea deal that delayed his prison stint until 2009, giving T.I. time to complete community service and make an album that responded to his trials. On Paper Trail, T.I. appeased those in control of his legal fate by showing regret for his actions. Yet, the emcee balanced his repentance with assertiveness—reminding fans of the talent that held their attention before the headlines.
T.I. opened the album with two lyrical barrages: "56 Bars (Intro)" and "I'm Illy." The former features T.I. working with DJ Toomp, the producer who helped T.I. craft his signature sound and popularize the subgenre known as Trap music. Their familiarity stands out on the intro track, as T.I. sounds as comfortable over the beat as you'll ever hear him. He flows effortlessly and boasts with the ease of someone with few worries.
T.I.'s confidence on the mic is second nature, but he intentionally puts it on display as a response to the odds against him. He raps, "World hopped off my jock, I got 'em right back on it / Oh! Step back, brush myself off / Picked bidness back up right where I left off." Here, T.I. recognizes that his legal trouble caused fans to doubt him. Yet, he is determined to remind them why they were fans of his in the first place. Fittingly, T.I. spends the rest of the song separating himself from his rivals and asserting his place among hip-hop's elite.
The braggadocio carries over into "I'm Illy," but it is more impassioned this time around as T.I. looks to prove a point. It seems that T.I. used the song to respond to Lil Wayne's rise in popularity. Wayne's ascension was largely due to his skill in making punchlines and many fans doubted that T.I. (or any rapper) could compete with Wayne in that realm. T.I. hints that fans' perception of Wayne inspired "I'm Illy" when he says, "I don't wanna hear shit 'bout I can't rap like this one or I ain't as good as that one." And his defiance is supported by his bars, as "I'm Illy" proves to be a standout on Paper Trail.
The song is not a diss, but it can easily be mistaken as such given the aggression in T.I.'s words and delivery. He rhymes, "Consider it a blessing if you get to stand next to me / Five-star general, OG veteran / Caked like Entenmann's, blowin' that celery / Stack that cash like the U.S. Treasury." Here and throughout the song, T.I. reels off punchlines with the steadiness of a boxer hitting a speed bag. The more he raps, the more offended he sounds by doubts that he can keep up with Lil Wayne or any other peer of his. It's hard to argue with him after hearing "I'm Illy," and that is just what T.I. set out to accomplish.
The Atlanta emcee goes from his most arrogant to his most revealing on "Ready For Whatever." T.I. addresses his gun charges by accepting blame, but also explaining his reasoning. He raps, "Killed my folk a year ago, still in my sleep they threaten me / Paranoia stressin’ me, ain't nobody protectin’ me / I'm dealin’ with the pressure from my partner dyin’ next to me / Thinking no one's arrested, they comin’ for me eventually."
In these lines, T.I. references the murder of his close friend and bodyguard Philant Johnson. The trauma of witnessing Johnson's death first-hand is what pushed him to illegally arm himself. To some, T.I.'s crime was a senseless risk of everything he earned for himself and his family. But sense is often warped by emotion, and few emotions are stronger than trauma.
Due to this conflict between reason and feeling, "Ready For Whatever" becomes a raw display of a man processing events that changed his life. The way T.I. bounces between justifying and regretting his crime may be a contradiction. But it also shows that T.I. is grappling with what has happened. The song is not a polished statement prepared for the press, but instead an honest moment shared with fans.
"Ready For Whatever" is serious in sound and message, so T.I. opts to lighten the mood on the following tracks. "On Top Of The World" is a vibrant song that features B.o.B and Ludacris, making it one of the first collaborations between T.I. and Ludacris after their beef. The emcees sound happy to move past their issues and they celebrate by recounting what they have accomplished through rap. Then comes the Rihanna-assisted "Live Your Life." The song was built to be the hit it became, thanks to an anthemic hook and upbeat, string-based production from Just Blaze.
"Live Your Life" is the quintessential "wave your hands in the air" song and T.I. goes for the same outcome on "No Matter What." The song has a guitar-based beat that is mellow, but uplifting. T.I. matches the mood of the beat by reflecting on his case and advising fans on how to handle adversity. T.I. displays maturity on "No Matter What," but he makes it clear that he has not done a complete 180. He still takes time on the song to address shots taken at him by the late Shawty Lo. You know a rapper enjoys beef when he makes a positive song and still throws in a diss. And if you doubt that, T.I. decides later on in the album to lash out with no subtlety.
T.I.'s true response to Shawty Lo comes on "What Up, What's Haapnin'." Shawty Lo questioned T.I.'s credibility in Bankhead, which is the Atlanta neighborhood that both rappers are from. T.I. responded by shooting the video for his reply in Bowen Homes—the housing project where Shawty Lo grew up. That, my friends, is a chess move. T.I. made sure to disrespect Shawty Lo on wax as well when he says, "Still hit the door and make it rain with the loose change / I bet that what he get a show, now that's a damn shame / I guess that what he hatin' fo', boy you so damn lame / Your clique the same, just a bunch of walkin' shit stains."
Lines like these are entertaining. But in the grand scheme of things, the rappers' beef was nothing to celebrate. Of all people, T.I. knew that trivial conflict can cause significant consequences. But thankfully the rivalry passed over without either party suffering serious harm. And a few songs later on Paper Trail, T.I. turned his attention to a much healthier form of competition.
One of the standouts on the album (and of all 2008 Hip-Hop) is "Swagga Like Us." The posse cut featured the four hottest rappers at the time, as T.I. was joined by JAY-Z, Kanye West and Lil Wayne. This lineup had the makings of an all-time great collaboration and that is...not what we received. The verses from JAY, Wayne and Kanye are not bad, but they fail to live up to the hype that preceded the song. Kanye and Wayne drown their verses in auto-tune to the point that they sound like robot imitations of themselves. Meanwhile, JAY's performance is solid until he starts crooning "HOOOOVAAA." I still can't tell if JAY was mocking Kanye's singing on the track or if he actually thought he sounded good.
Luckily for us, T.I. delivered. He raps, "Lookin' from the surface / It may seem like I got reason to be nervous / Then observe my work to see that my adversity was worth it / Verses autobiographical, absolutely classical / Last thing I'm worried about is what another rapper do." From his content to his delivery, T.I. outperforms his peers. His verse doesn't make the song a classic cut, but it does provide T.I. with a signature moment. He was matched up with the biggest names in the genre, including a man that some consider the G.O.A.T.. But still in all, T.I. sounds like he was in a class of his own.
"Swagga Like Us' is a feather in T.I.'s tilted cap. Yet even in this triumphant moment, the weight of T.I.'s trials comes through in his lyrics and that is what defines Paper Trail. The prospect of going to prison will make most people reassess their lives and T.I. is a prime example. On "Dead And Gone," he pinpoints the negative tendencies that landed him in trouble and vows to end them. Yet on "You Ain't Missin' Nothing," T.I. provides solace to his friends that are serving prison bids and realizes that his situation could be much worse.
Introspection is prevalent on the album, but T.I. still provides moments of levity. "Whatever You Like" is a lighthearted song meant to charm women and "Swing Ya Rag" adds to T.I.'s list of speaker-shaking club anthems. Altogether, the songs form a balanced album that speaks to T.I.'s different pockets of fans. The numbers back this up, as Paper Trail debuted at No. 1 on The Billboard 200 with 568,000 copies sold in the U.S. Paper Trail's debut was T.I.'s biggest sales week ever, marking a peak in his popularity despite the pressure working against his career.
The commercial success was paired with the quality of the music, as T.I. was equal parts hungry and strategic on Paper Trail. He crafted hit songs to keep his voice present even when his body was locked away. His rhymes were sharp, ready to battle against the way he was underestimated as an emcee. And T.I. was transparent with his thoughts to answer the questions of supporters and detractors. His freedom as a citizen was out of his hands, but with Paper Trail, T.I. reclaimed control of his career. Legal trouble may have threatened his empire, but T.I. still sat upon his throne.