It’s not easy being Tip. Yes, as of right now, Clifford Joseph Harris Jr. (who just turned 28) has the number one album in America. And it’s true that the new record does a fair job of reasserting his claim to rap hall-of-fame credentials, not that those should be in any doubt. This is his sixth album, and by even a conservative count those include two full-on classics (2003’s Trap Muzik, 2006’s King) and a bunch of great singles. So why is this one such a recurrent bummer? Probably because T.I.’s going to jail. He’s due to start serving a year on weapons charges in early 2009. He’s done time before, but still, he doesn’t sound happy with the prospect. In his most direct account of the situation, “Ready for Whatever,” he lays out his case for why he really needed those machine guns: People were out to get him. He’s sort of contrite, and sort of not. (“Yes, officially I broke the law/but not maliciously.”)
But whether his arms deal was a function of paranoia or prudence, the specter of the lock-up haunts the album. T.I. does his best to juke his way through some spirited tracks (“What’s Up, What’s Happenin’,” “I’m Illy,” “Swing Ya Rag”), but he can’t hide his bitterness. Where on earlier records his verbal dexterity was matched by a buoyant self-confidence, Paper Trail finds him feeling overwhelmed, unappreciated, and under assault. “Can’t afford the price of fame,” he grumbles, “cuz it costs too much.”
There are at least two classics here, the late-summer smash “Whatever You Like” (where T.I. again shows that he can do the loverman jam as well as anyone) and the Bics-in-the-air anthem “No Matter What.” A smattering of guest spots lightens the mood, particularly a sprightly Rihanna and a bellowing Ludacris. (Is there any other kind?) But Paper Trail is T.I.’s show, and for all his skill and what swagger he can muster, he’s not really in the mood to party. This is the sound of one man crabbing.