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The Plug, Vol. 4: Childish Gambino Studied, T.I. Dissected, and Big Bank Hank Remembered

Plus: Dozens of hip-hop mixtapes reviewed!

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    The Plug is Consequence of Sound‘s hip-hop zine.

    Welcome to Atlanta.

    OutKast’s emergence — and eventual Dixie-rap dominance — has been a gift and a curse for the Georgia capital. Not even the formidable Killer Mike has matched the cultural impact of the duo’s relentless creativity and mesmerizing microphone exchanges in the past two decades. That’s not to say the city is short on stars these days. Producers like Mike WiLL Made-It, the space-trap visionary who released his Ransom mixtape on Monday, are crucial whether or not they get their proper due, but ultimately it’s the frontmen who seal the hits, with today’s biggest being (in rough order of most O.G. to least) T.I., Jeezy, Gucci, Waka, 2 Chainz, B.o.B., Future, Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, and Migos. Moreover, certain artists — from all three members of TLC to Ludacris, Gucci, and Waka — have relocated to Atlanta from another region. There’s an argument to be made that something is literally in the water, bringing all these unshakeable hooks and eccentricities to hip-hop.

    For this edition of The Plug — the Atlanta issue, loosely — contributor Killian Young examines Childish Gambino’s ascendant hip-hop career and the emphasis he’s put on his native ATL/Stone Mountain, especially with his recent mixtape, STN MTN. We dissect each solo album in T.I.’s catalog, trying to get to the heart of the consensus (and self-proclaimed) king of the South. In the reviews section, we tackle new hip-hop releases of all regional backgrounds, but with an emphasis on Atlanta projects: T.I.’s Paperwork, Rich Gang’s Tha Tour Part 1, Future’s Monster, Migos’ Rich Nigga Timeline, and Rome Fortune’s Small VVorld. Lastly, in a return to hip-hop’s New York beginnings, staff writer Nina Corcoran explores the life of the late Sugarhill Gang member Big Bank Hank, who died November 11, 35 years after playing a direct role in hip-hop’s original form — not an opinion.

    Until next time:

    Ho ho ho, merry motherfuckin’ Christmas.

    –Michael Madden
    Associate Editor

    What’s in a City? Childish Gambino Goes Home

    By Killian Young

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    It was all a dream – for Childish Gambino, that is. The rapper opens his new mixtape and EP, STN MTN / Kauai, with a fantasy. On “Dream / Southern Hospitality / Partna Dem”, he declares, “I had a dream I ran Atlanta,” and STN MTN closes as Gambino flatly says, “And then I woke up.” STN MTN, with its heavy Dirty South/crunk/trap influences, allows Gambino to imagine making a record that would be at home with early ’00s hip-hop and pay homage to his sort-of hometown of Atlanta. Gambino really gets up, as his true self, in Hawaii on the poppy Kauai.

    Gambino’s debut studio album, 2011’s Camp, aligns itself more closely with his time in New York City when he studied at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts — the South and Stone Mountain are only referenced twice (on “Bonfire” and “That Power”, respectively). But on Gambino’s next release, the R O Y A L T Y mixtape, we get a significant dose of ATL pride.

    What’s the reason for this uptake in allegiance? I spoke with Andrew Hoberek, a professor at the University of Missouri who teaches a course that critically analyzes Jay Z and Kanye West, about the changing role of hometowns in hip-hop. Childish Gambino is one of the most successful artists to navigate multiple cities: L.A./Hollywood in his acting career; New York City during his undergraduate years at NYU; and Atlanta/Stone Mountain during his youth.

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    With the rise of the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop rivalry of the early ’90s, “place was very central,” Hoberek says. The city you grew up in dictated who you collaborated with, and authenticity was scrutinized. Over time, major rappers emerged from markets other than New York or L.A., like OutKast in Atlanta, Eminem in Detroit, and Nelly in St. Louis.

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    Kanye West is really the lynchpin for a shift in how the rap game operates. “As part of Kanye’s breakthrough, he really makes authenticity less important than it used to be,” Hoberek says. “Rap has always been tied into a notion of authenticity, but really in some ways that can be a limiting effect on artists’ range. Kanye, by rejecting a gangster persona, adopting the middle-class persona early on, makes authenticity of a certain kind less central to rap.” As both Kanye West and Jay Z have reached international superstar status, their lyrics don’t concern their respective neighborhoods anymore.

    But questions of authenticity still find relevance in rap. Specifically, Hoberek cites artists like Drake (who aligns himself with Toronto and Miami and tries to distance himself from his acting career on Degrassi), Iggy Azalea (born in Sydney, with ties to several cities in the American South), and Rick Ross (whose gangster identity represents a persona rather than lived experiences). With Atlanta becoming a reality TV hub (The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta), the city doesn’t represent the same place that gave rise to OutKast. Instead, Hoberek says, “In some ways, it’s freeing to think about Atlanta not as a place of authenticity, but as a cultural metropolis — the same way you’d think about Miami or Hollywood. But with that comes an interest in the history of Atlanta and then going back to that history of crunk and Dirty South.”

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    Where does that leave STN MTN in Hoberek’s opinion? “It’s a retrospective, looking back to a cultural heritage,” he says, “rather than coming up immersed in that cultural heritage the way you’d think of OutKast.”

    In other words, Gambino transcends city and regional associations because of his varied experiences as a kid, as a student, and as an actor. Hoberek points to Gambino’s diverse slate of featured artists on his second studio album, Because the Internet. The album had guest spots from Chance the Rapper (of Chicago), Azealia Banks (Harlem), and Jhené Aiko (Los Angeles), indicative of blurred boundaries between cities and regions. With the rise of collaborative technologies and the ability to produce tracks from remote locations, place even further loses importance.

    Kanye mayor

    At a glance, it might seem that STN MTN and Gambino’s past references to Atlanta may have been attempts to distance himself from his acting career as Donald Glover and to boost his credibility as a rapper. Then again, FX just ordered the pilot of a new show starring Glover. As Deadline originally reported: “Tentatively entitled Atlanta, the comedy is set against the backdrop of the Atlanta music scene.” Glover seems aware of Atlanta as a reality-TV, global city, and STN MTN plays with the traditional tropes of Southern rap.

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    For instance, Gambino subverts bragging about wealth on “No Small Talk” when he raps, “Two gold chains and I still don’t ever wear ‘em/ Why would I wear ‘em?” while also possibly taking a shot at 2 Chainz, another Atlanta native whose city identity Hoberek describes as not “front and central.” Over the flip phone sound effects of Atlanta rapper Maceo’s regional hit “Nextel Chirp” on “Move That Dope / Nextel Chirp / Let Your Hair Blow”, Gambino declares, “Rap game, I’m Steve Urkel”. STN MTN features or otherwise highlights a bunch of Atlanta artists: K Camp is on “Money Baby”, Gambino covers Usher on “U Don’t Have to Call”, and Mike Will and Lil Jon beats are used on “Move That Dope / Nextel Chirp / Let Your Hair Blow”. A sped-up version of the horns from OutKast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” plays during the super-unsubtle line on “Dream / Southern Hospitality / Partna Dem”: “See them titties, wanna motorboat it/ I’m Dopaliscious like Spottie Ottie.”

    It’s an all-star cavalcade of Atlanta’s past as the epicenter of Southern hip-hop and present as a global city. But STN MTN is much more clever than it seems at face value because it tackles the often-insipid themes of early ’00s Southern hip-hop with Gambino’s frequently funny spin as an outsider who is not bound to conventions of authenticity.

    Dissected: T.I.

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    Thirteen years and nine solo albums in, T.I. is still atop the throne as the king of the South, as he’s been proclaiming since the intro of his debut album. Honestly, is it even close? The biggest Southern rappers to emerge since 2001’s I’m Serious, like Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Gucci Mane, Big K.R.I.T., Future, and Young Thug, who’s right when he says he has the streets in a headlock, have yet to achieve the towering size and consistency of his catalog. A word of advice to any and all challengers: You better use your Nikes, bruh.

    Just 21 when I’m Serious came out, T.I. arrived more promisingly than any of the other members in Atlanta’s P$C (Pimp Squad Click). He’s no longer as country-sounding as he was on his first two albums (“Who I’m ihhhh?”), presumably because someone told him he should take advantage of his pop instincts. That’s OK, because it didn’t result in a loss of his technical expertise or sense of humor; it resulted in songs like “What You Know”, “Whatever You Like”, and, most recently, “No Mediocre” with protégé Iggy Azalea.

    Since 2012 alone, T.I. has released the solo albums Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head and Paperwork, the solo mixtape Fuck Da City Up, and the Grand Hustle mixtapes G.D.O.D. (Get Dough or Die) and G.D.O.D. II, not to mention the features with which he’s continued to crown himself (Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, in particular).

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    Over the years, Clifford Joseph “Tip” Harris, Jr. has undertaken endeavors apart from music, including acting (playing the lead role of Rashad in ATL and Frank Lucas’ Yankee-prospect nephew Stevie in American Gangster), reality TV (VH1’s T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle), and even a romance novel (Power & Beauty: A Love Story of Life on the Streets, co-written with David Ritz). There’s also his Grand Hustle label, whose roster includes or has included Iggy Azalea, B.o.B., Trae tha Truth, Travi$ Scott, Young Dro, and the late Doe B.

    For another round of Dissected, we took it upon ourselves to break down every T.I. album to date — with the exception of Paperwork, which is reviewed in full on the next page.

    –Michael Madden

    I’m Serious (2001)

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    Whatcha Saying Tip (Themes): T.I.’s debut is aptly titled I’m Serious, and the major theme is that he’s rapping about what he’s lived. T.I. is a trapper turned rapper, and he peddled that notion throughout the album. He wanted his first impression to read honestly, and it does. Though he had yet to really find his sound or his voice, he knew exactly what he wanted to say. It’s an appropriate introduction.

    Let Me Tell You Something (Standout Bars): “Before me, it was pull-out couches and Bilitant bags/ I tell you what if that ain’t good enough get back on the bus/ Give up the princess cuts and the Prada and stuff/ I take you out to eat and you order the bottle of what?/ Ungrateful, wonderin’ why I’m not faithful/ Ballin’s all good but this shit is just wasteful” (“I Can’t Be Your Man”)

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    Swagga Like Us (Guests): Maybe the weirdest thing about I’m Serious is the Neptunes-produced title track, which features a rather out of place Beenie Man hook. His patois melody matches the tune of the production, and it should work in theory, but it’s a goofy pairing on wax.

    No More Talk (Beats): Though I’m Serious was DJ Toomp’s big breakout moment as well as T.I.’s; a lot of the debut’s best beats were produced by Brian Kidd (especially “You Ain’t Hard” and “Hands Up”). A quick Google search shows that Kidd has also produced music for Pitbull, J. Cole, and Enrique Iglesias. This was a career highlight.

    King? (Verdict): I’m Serious is a Southern album that sounds like many of the Southern albums that preceded it in the late-’90s, and it mimics them in earnest, perhaps unintentionally. On his debut, T.I. failed to differentiate himself from the pack, but he did establish longstanding relationships — with DJ Toomp, The Neptunes, and Jazzy Pha — that would help shape the rest of his game-changing career.

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    Countdown (Top Songs): 3. “You Ain’t Hard” (feat. Mac Boney) 2. “I Can’t Be Your Man” 1. “Hands Up”

    –Sheldon Pearce

    Trap Muzik (2003)

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    Whatcha Saying Tip: This is the album with “Rubber Band Man”, so you know that, aside from the endless trapping, T.I. wants you to know about his splurges. I’m talking drop-top Chevys, five-karat pinky rings, etc. On the other hand, “I Still Luv You” and “Better Than Me” are more humble, as T.I raps on the latter song, “Shawty, them streets ain’t the place to be/ I’m telling you ’cause it’s too late for me.”

    Let Me Tell You Something: “Long as somebody up in heaven who keep blessing a G/ T.I.P.’ll still be blessing CDs” (“I Can’t Quit”); “By no means am I any more conceited than this game needed” (“No More Talk”); “I told my class, ‘Kiss my ass, I make a living every day’” (“24’s”)

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    Swagga Like Us: P$C’s Mac Boney is on the album’s opener, “Trap Muzik”, aptly talking up his peddling prowess: “Triple beam ain’t seen what I do to a ounce of blow.” “Bezzle” is the Southern cosign track: It features both 8Ball and MJG (already enough old-school Southern rap cred, as the duo were more than a decade into the game by ’03) as well as a reminiscent Bun B. Presumably, Bun’s UGK partner, Pimp C, would have graced the track as well if he hadn’t been in prison for an aggravated assault charge.

    No More Talk: Production-wise, Trap Muzik is a leap beyond I’m Serious — fuller, more melodic, and more varied. DJ Toomp’s “Be Easy” is a wallop of piano (played by T.I. himself, who boasts, “Y’all ain’t never seen a dope boy play the piano and rap at the same time”) and honking brass. Released the year before The College Dropout, you can instantly tell that “Doin’ My Job”’s beat is Kanye West’s, a swirling, sparkling track featuring samples of Bloodstone’s “I’m Just Doing My Job”.

    King? Trap Muzik stands as T.I.’s first front-to-back great album, launching him into the conversation of the South’s next great hope. “24’s” and “Rubber Band Man” thrive on his ability to invigorate Southern rap tropes, as the songs are named after oversized rims and stacks of cash, respectively, but are so catchy that you don’t notice.

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    Countdown: 3. “Be Easy” 2. “Rubber Band Man” 1. “24’s”

    –Michael Madden

    Urban Legend (2004)

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    Whatcha Saying Tip: T.I. had been building his king of the South mythology since the start of his career (and most explicitly on Trap Muzik with “King of Da South”), but Urban Legend gave the comments merit more than anything he’d done before. Before giving Trap Muzik a proper encore, it was hard to take the idea seriously, especially while Houston’s Scarface still drew breath.

    Let Me Tell You Something: “I don’t need no security, reaching for my jewelry/ Get you niggas popped quick, filled full of hot shit/ Fresh out the box Tip hopped in a drop six/ Made a quarter mil’ in the pen givin’ stock tips/ Haters wanna stop Tip, mad ’cause they not Tip/ Ball every summer so your baby mama jock Tip/ You don’t no drama pimp, I promise I do not slip/ Chrome 4-5th, hid well if the cops trip” (“ASAP”)

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    Swagga Like Us: In 2004, Lil Wayne was just starting to round into form as one of hip-hop’s biggest assets. On the heels of Tha Carter, released earlier that year, T.I. enlisted his help for “Stand Up”, which also features a forgettable Trick Daddy verse. Wayne steals the show without breaking a sweat: “Nasty, Hollygrove classic/ Parley wit’ a nigga probably robbed the same bastard/ Ask him/ We don’t give a fuck about a casket.” He raps casually, as if it’s effortless, and it’s an excellent complement to T.I.’s verse.

    No More Talk: It’s impossible to discuss T.I.’s production without DJ Toomp, and “U Don’t Know Me” was a sound-defining moment in both artists’ careers. It’s preceded by another great, albeit out-of-character, Toomp beat, “Motivation”, which is driven by a flickering flute riff. One of the lesser appreciated beats on Urban Legend was “Why U Mad at Me”, a subdued record produced by Khao, who would play a much greater role on T.I.’s next album, the breakout King.

    King? Urban Legend was a solid follow-up to the groundbreaking Trap Muzik, and it solidified T.I. as a major player in Southern rap. Though it had its faults — the Scott Storch-produced, Lil Kim-featuring “Get Ya Shit Together” is very awkward, and the super-pitchy Pharrell hook on “Freak Though” isn’t even the worst thing about it — he continued to establish his brand.

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    Countdown: 3. “Bring Em Out” 2. “What They Do” (feat. B.G.) 1. “U Don’t Know Me”

    –Sheldon Pearce

    King (2006)

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    Whatcha Saying Tip: King is the document of an artist reaching a peak of commercial success on his own terms. ATL was in theaters. Grand Hustle’s trunk-rattling Southern sound dominated popular music. The themes of the album don’t extend far beyond anything T.I. had talked about on earlier albums, but there’s no problem with that when you’re on top and unstoppable.

    Let Me Tell You Something: “Can’t complain, I’m highly favored, my flavor’s God-given/ So used to hate appreciation is an odd feeling/ Still I stay focused on the millions, trying to dodge prison/ Praying as if for forgiveness, hoping God listens/ As far as dissing me, pimpin’, go ahead and have a ball/ Meanwhile I’m getting bread, determined to have it all/ I’m taking money, sonny, if ain’t none of that involved why is we conversing? This vehicle ain’t reversing” (“Hello”)

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    Swagga Like Us: King features verses from Young Jeezy, Young Buck, and Young Dro, all in some version of their prime. In 2006, Dro was riding high on the success of “Shoulder Lean”; Grand Hustle had officially made it. It doesn’t get much better than T.I. educating everyone about UGK on “Front Back”, though.

    No More Talk: The “What You Know” beat will forever be DJ Toomp’s second greatest contribution to the world, behind the beat for “U Don’t Know Me”. Mannie Fresh has given us much better before, but the “Top Back” beat is up there. On the whole, King is filled with glorious, maxed-out production over which T.I. still sounds hungry to be the best.

    King? Supported by a few huge hit singles, King was the full realization of T.I.’s potential at exactly the right time. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that some of the albums released on either side of King are better, but this was certainly a peak in T.I.’s early career before things began to change for the artist.

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    Countdown: 3. “Undertaker” 2. “Front Back” 1. “What You Know”

    –Will Hagle

    T.I. vs. T.I.P. (2007)

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    Whatcha Saying Tip: Following the murder of friend Philant Johnson, the concept behind the three-act T.I. vs. T.I.P. (also the name of Trap Muzik‘s twelfth track) is the tension between the straitlaced T.I. and his criminal-minded alter ego, T.I.P.

    Let Me Tell You Something: “I said I was king and them lames started laughin’/ Them same suckers now want the king on a track with ’em” (“Big Shit Poppin’ (Do It)”); “They sweatin’ when they see me, I’m apparently hot/ Had the album of the year, nigga, Grammy or not” (“You Know What It Is”); “Frank Lucas ain’t the only one who made a million a day/ Boy this a American Gangster right here in your face” (“You Know What It Is”)

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    Swagga Like Us: Jay-Z appears on “Watch What You Say to Me” with a memorable line or two (“Soon as you see ’em, they freeze up like in museums”). Eminem sounds bored, or maybe distracted, on “Touchdown”’s chorus, though his lines about vehicular recklessness are hilarious if you let them be. Nelly is in the mood on “Show It to Me”.

    No More Talk: The production on T.I. vs. T.I.P. is the most menacing T.I. had rapped over, resulting in his hardest-hitting album. “My Love” producer Danja’s “Hurt”, featuring Alfamega and Busta Rhymes, surges with pounding drums and draping horns. Later, Danja’s high-energy “Tell ‘Em I Said That” features whirling vocal samples and more booming percussion.

    King? Even during chaotic moments like “I’m Talkin’ to You”, King was much more accessible to the average pop fan, so maybe the denser T.I. vs. T.I.P. let them down. It’s stuffed with hooks, but the hooks are more forceful (read: repetitive and grunted) than melodic. The verses are enough to keep early fans interested, if not for the entirety of the 72 minutes.

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    Countdown: 3. “Big Shit Poppin’ (Do It)” 2. “Tell ‘Em I Said That” 1. “You Know What It Is”

    –Michael Madden

    Paper Trail (2008)

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    Whatcha Saying Tip: The major overarching theme of Paper Trail is redemption and rebirth in the aftermath of T.I.’s 2007 gun charge. It attempts to explain away the charge and put it in the context of his life (“Ready for Whatever”) and puts forth a survivalist mentality (“No Matter What”). It’s a comeback story with big guests highlighted by hip-pop hits.

    Let Me Tell You Something: “If your life was in jeopardy, e’ryday is you tellin’ me/ You wouldn’t need weaponry just because of your felony/ Consider this at least, I got e’rybody sweatin’ me/ On the streets is people who won’t rest unless I rest in peace/ 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/ Think ‘cause no one’s arrested, they comin’ for me eventually” (“Ready for Whatever”)

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    Swagga Like Us: It’s tempting to put “Swagga Like Us” here just on the strength of its star-studded billing — Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne were three of the biggest rap stars at the time, and they are all still top-tier faces of the genre today. Now that the initial mystique has worn off, however, it’s safe to say that the song hasn’t aged well (and that Jay’s verse is one of the worst of his career). The real, under-heralded winner on Paper Trail was Rihanna, who quite amazingly turned O-Zone’s “Dragostea Din Tei” into an international hit.

    No More Talk: “Swing Ya Rag”, like many Swizz Beatz beats, is undone by the terrible hook that accompanies it, but its hard-hitting kick drum and the trumpets that sound over top of it are still undeniable. It’s a certified banger in the truest sense. Drumma Boy produced the album’s best record, the trap staple “What Up, What’s Haapnin”, which is also a Shawty Lo diss track.

    King? Paper Trail was the first written album from T.I. since I’m Serious, and given the subtext, it seems somewhat fitting. When considering the events surrounding the album, the project does a pretty serviceable job placing T.I.’s circumstances in perspective with his public profile. That said, some of the songs are just flat-out boring, “On Top of the World” and “Slide Show” in particular.

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    Countdown: 3. “Live Your Life” (feat. Rihanna) 2. “Ready for Whatever” 1. “What Up, What’s Haapnin’”

    –Sheldon Pearce

    No Mercy (2010)

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    Whatcha Saying Tip: T.I.’s a little older, in and out of prison, no longer the reigning king. Internal struggles about public problems are laid out for everyone to hear whether they want to or not. But on “Get Back Up”, he promises his fans that he’ll never go back to the pen.

    Let Me Tell You Something: “Put me anywhere in any jail and I shall prevail/ If another man survived I shall as well/ Now, fuck rap, got swag for sale” (“Salute”)

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    Swagga Like Us: Kanye West and Kid Cudi kick off the album on “Welcome to the World”, then Mitchelle’le gets on a song that also features Scarface. Eminem gets two verses and a hook in the year Recovery was released. Two future judges of The Voice also appear.

    No More Talk: Kanye West and Lil C supply production along with more regular T.I. collaborators, including the always-great Neptunes. The beats are slightly more subdued than usual, perhaps to match T.I.’s changed bravado.

    King? “That’s All She Wrote” and “Castle Walls” were popular songs, but T.I.’s heart didn’t seem behind them. That’s how many of the songs on No Mercy feel: not bad but not quite right. The album was different than what we’d grown to expect from T.I., the product of an artist faced with change in both life and career, working it out on record.

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    Countdown: 3. “Amazing” 2. “Salute” 1. “How Life Changed”

    –Will Hagle

    Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head (2012)

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    Whatcha Saying Tip: T.I. sheds the apprehension of No Mercy in an attempt to return to truer form. The rubber band man becomes the trouble man, some type of semi-autobiographical character that gives T.I. more creative freedom than his last album.

    Let Me Tell You Something: “Never mind what the blogs say/ This what my mind and heart say” (“Sorry”); “Out of gladiator college, I made it summa cum laude/ Where you clowns couldn’t have got a cap and gown if you bought it” (“Sorry”)

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    Swagga Like Us: The best stretch of Trouble Man: the song with Lil Wayne, then the song with Andre 3000, followed by the song with R. Kelly. With features like that, how could it not be? The song with A$AP Rocky is also technically part of that stretch of songs with features, but maybe isn’t so deserving. There is a song with P!nk, which I guess needs to be mentioned here. One future ex-judge of The Voice also appears.

    No More Talk: T.I. worked mostly with close and familiar faces to find more reliable beats. No I.D. also managed to make a hazy space for A$AP Rocky, and Jazze Pha made another beat for Three Stacks to demolish.

    King? Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head was strong because T.I. was back, and he sounded like it, too. Except you can never really get back to exactly how things were before, and this album is no exception.

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    Countdown: 3. “Can You Learn” (feat. R. Kelly) 2. “Sorry” (feat. Andre 3000) 1. “Ball” (feat. Lil Wayne)

    –Will Hagle

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