This one sure has been a long time coming. Delay after delay for T.I.’s post-prison album King Uncaged gave way to another arrest, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that the material from that record wouldn’t be seeing the light of day anytime soon: King Recaged? That wasn’t going far. Toss T.I. off his throne and back into a cell with a dejected looking tiger and you have No Mercy.
Uncaged was to feature triumphant material (as shown by some strong singles that sadly are reduced to bonus track status here), and so when Clifford Harris was suddenly inspired to record a bunch of rants, it was pretty much inevitable that this album would sound rushed. It’s too bad: with his last two albums T.I. was at risk of becoming that woe is me celebrity that people would rapidly tire of. Uncaged would have been a breath of fresh air, whereas this…well, what is this, exactly?
To dismiss it as entirely self-pitying excess as some critics are doing would be unfair. T.I.’s found more of a focus here than he’s had in years. Whereas the ranting on Paper Trail couldn’t really be sympathized with (you bought guns from a government employee… sorry?) a year long sentence for a drug charge is stupid. Not to suggest celebrities should be given free reign to do anything, but…they are. The likes of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton go to jail for all of ten seconds for similar crimes. Of course, Lindsay Lohan has never faced federal charges, but think too much and you’ll undo this album’s flawed logic. The record more or less operates along the following line of thinking:
a) The system is broken, designed to fuck over the common man, and the common African American man in particular
b) T.I., is an African American, but far from common, and hence the public is unable to regard his plight from a fair perspective
This allows for both material more “conscious” than mainstream rap has seen in some time and for those overly dramatic T.I. cuts that were seeping out of Paper Trail. Among the highlights are a furious Kanye verse on album opener “Welcome to the World” and “How Life Changed”, which finds T.I. simply reflecting rather than justifying, talking about his early criminal history (can’t you just see it now: T.I. released only to be taken back in for stealing a Millennium – you heard it here!), boasting a Scarface verse to boot. The album’s top heavy, and its finest moments come when T.I.’s able to look past himself, whether it be to attack the legal or education system.
The rest is frustratingly mixed: a collaboration with Eminem on “All She Wrote” is appropriately epic, but the two don’t seem to have figured out much of a theme, as the track meanders bitterly nowhere: it’s great to hear the two together at the top of their game, but you’ll scratch your head as to why Clifford’s rapping about the game while Em makes hot dog jokes. Many of the chorus guests detract from the record: The-Dream’s grandiose hook is so painful that it damages what are actually among T.I.’s better verses found here. The same goes for Chris Brown’s tepid chorus on the single “Get Back Up.” Then there’s the terrible: you’ll wonder how Pharrell possibly thought it was a good plan to repeat the word “Amazing” 2,000 times on his appearance, and “Lay Me Down” is a halfassed party track tossed in right before the album’s epic conclusion, hopelessly out of place.
So finally, it comes down to “Castle Walls,” which epitomizes the album nearly perfectly. It’s “Dead and Gone” Part 2, with Christina Aguilera replacing Justin Timberlake, and it may actually work better. However, looking past T.I.’s nearly convincing argument, it’s clear that he considers himself the victim. It all comes down to a line he spits: “When ya rich nobody give a shit,” and what T.I. needs to realize is that clearly people do, otherwise his career would never have lasted. Then, all that remains is for him to decide whether he feels strongly enough to care as much as we do.