Paperwork isn’t just T.I’s ninth studio album; it’s also the first installment of what will lead to his tenth and eleventh. Paperwork will be a “trilogy,” T.I. has promised, an imposing prospect for a rapper whose career peak is 8 years in his rearview. He has a habit of “returning,” whenever coming off of a break (voluntary or involuntary), with a torrential, unmanageable flood of new material. He did it with 2010’s No Mercy, a bone-tired and dogged-sounding effort that felt like clockwork from someone determined not to disappear but lacking a larger reason to be recording.
On the surface, Paperwork appears like it come from this same place; it arrives at what looks like the beginning of T.I.’s post-gangsta rap “suburban dad” phase, when his most visible recent contributions to pop culture are his “Blurred Lines” verse and the ascendency of Iggy Azalea. The album feels fired up, though, instead of muddled and tired. His last record boasted that he was the Trouble Man, but with a clear mind and fewer visible burdens, Clifford Harris has produced his most thoughtful and substantive record in years.
It is also the most excited he’s sounded to be rapping since Paper Trail. His voice and flow patterns are so inimitable they run the risk of becoming sound effects, but he’s pushing himself out of familiar cadences and revisiting some of the demented, spitfire youthful energy that used to make him unpredictable. You can also hear subliminal Jay-style flow-patterning at work, an old trick you’d hear whenever Jay Z appeared next to a truly great rapper. It’s usually a sign that a rapper is engaging with his guests instead of just pasting their emailed verses into sound files, and Tip is flaunting it here: He sounds vaguely Boosie-esque on the Boosie-guested “Jet Fuel”, and on the Young Thug-featuring “About That Money” he takes a few tentative hops into Thugga’s stratosphere, pinching his throat and rapping in a near-insectoid voice.
Perhaps not-incidentally, Paperwork is also T.I.’s first record since his contract with the infamously risk-averse Atlantic Records ended. Now he’s signed his Grand Hustle imprint to Columbia and is acting more and more like a label mogul, and Paperwork bears the marks of an artist grateful for stretching room. There is, to be sure, a fair amount of commercial-rap-record box-checking: He still does DJ Mustard, who produces the Iggy Azalea-assisted “No Mediocre”; a Chris Brown-featured sex jam (for “Private Show”) and another Usher collaboration (“At Ya Own Risk”). But he finds ways to enliven even these pro forma moves: “At Ya Own Risk” is a novelty—a menacing, even murderous-sounding bedroom song. The Skylar Grey power ballad (“New National Anthem”) is an indignant and incisive commentary on America’s gun culture.
There are a lot of intriguing “off” notes like this that make Paperwork feel like T.I.’s passion project, cleverly disguised as a superstar’s contractual-obligation release. (That album title doesn’t help.) The four songs co-produced by Pharrell—”G Shit”, “Oh Yeah,” “Paperwork”, and “Light Em Up”—are rough, sharp-edged, and unique compositions, somewhere between current trap and early N.E.R.D. His rapping consistently fires off sparklers—”suicide, you should commit it, save a G a life sentence,” he leers on “Oh Yeah”. “If only the masses could see your ass when it’s in action,” he says, sliding into all the “sss”s, on the otherwise-rote “Private Show”. On “Light Em Up”, a song that deliberately recalls the vivid murkiness of classic Dungeon Family, he pays powerful tribute to his friend and labelmat Doe B, who was shot and killed in 2013. “At your video, I could feel it then,” he raps. The hook is simple and bleak: “You were supposed to make it.” It’s quietly powerful, which is something Tip hasn’t been in a long time.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1thSdhX