Most of our favorite rappers weren’t born kings but peasants that acquired crowns. Tragedy didn’t destroy them but fueled their triumphant rise. Isn’t the story of Jay Z and Dame Dash, the rise and fall of Roc-A-Fella, really just William Shakespeare’s Caesar? Two men that conquered the world and then watched the drive for power end in backstabbing. The beef between the east and west coast resembles the war between the Montagues and Capulets. Where rage fueled by pride ended in deaths on both sides. Two irreplaceable treasures. I’m almost certain Romeo told Tybalt, “That’s why I fornicated with thy bitch” before their duel.
There is one rapper of royalty whose story is truly worth of Shakespearean adaption. A king with more tragedy than Hamlet, more enemies than Julius and a bigger womanizer than Prince Hal. Years from now the great scribes of our generation will write screenplays about the gravity-defying tilted crown that sat upon the head of one ruler containing two clashing personalities. He is a vessel that contains the spirits of Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell, another modern Shakespearean tale. One side wants to be the drug dealing gangster that ends altercations in a blaze of bullet spraying glory while the other is a charismatic public figure and father who wants to stray from any paths leading toward trouble. Except trouble is the mistress that bought him land to build a castle upon, the foundation of his success. He sold drugs on the corners, hid pistols in toy boxes, and was no stranger to the depressing echo of a slamming prison door. He turned his wildest, youthful days into stories. The hustler’s ambition that introduced him to the trap was turned into music. The bricks he sold became the bricks that built a palace in Atlanta, and on that throne, he proclaimed himself King of the South. Can’t you see such a tale on Broadway?
T.I’s first two albums sounded like the blueprint for Grand Theft Auto: Bankhead. He painted his surroundings, an illustration that consisted of rubber bands wrapped around hundreds, old school Chevys sitting on 24 inch rims, gleaming grills, giant throwback jerseys, dope fiends and a reckless abonnement that was edgy enough to entice women looking for a bad boy with a baby face and garnish respect from men in the streets to the factories. He was real, authentic, and he could rap. There was no denying he was from the South, Atlanta down to the bone marrow, but there wasn’t any snapping and dancing in his rhymes, just raw bars that sculpted an image of the trap up close and personal. He was a product of living fast on the streets since 14, but he was a gangster with a heart, a gnawing conscience that’s strongest on the reflective “Still Ain’t Forgave Myself,” the second song from his first album. It introduced the guilt before glory, a man wrestling with demons, reviewing the friends that passed, the Uncles imprisoned, setbacks, hoping his kid won’t have to see such a life. A perspective that I miss, it now feels like every rapper is a kingpin that found Jay’s lost 92 bricks. The trap is treated like a winning lottery ticket, and there’s no repercussions on the road to wealth.
T.I.'s first album was a commercial flop, he gleamed with potential but not bright enough to keep him from being dropped from Artisa, later signing to Atlantic for a second chance to prove himself. This is why I believe him when he raps lines like, “I might be back to slangin grams any day, and if this record flop well I’ll be back wit’ a bomb of heart” on Trap Muzik. It was do or die, and maybe the pressure is what allowed him to create arguably his best project. A seven time felon on the cusp of fame and fortune, capturing that juxtaposing of his transition is what inspired the conceptual self-conversation, T.I. vs T.I.P. He turned a name change into an alternate personality, it’s like listening to Bruce Banner converse with the Hulk, except T.I.’s inner monster resembles him. Two sides of the same coin, one representing his past and the other a hopeful future. It’s a metaphor for his life and career, one that still exists today. It also allowed him create two more albums that balances the two conflicting viewpoints. He could make street anthems into radio singles and radio singles into street anthems without effort. The same southern gentlemen that was telling ladies to get loose was shooting unauthorized music videos in jail. Like most kings there was numerous attempts to behead him and each foe that didn’t later become a friend eventually fell into obscurity. Remembered only as thumbnails in the history of his conquest.
T.I’s transition is complete. He has left the trap, overcame adversity, and still holds the crown. The road was bumpy, there was moments where it seems his legacy would end in prison, but he stands victorious. His last album, Paperwork, showcased a maturing artist. He touches on Trayvon and police brutality ("New National Anthem"), his struggling marriage ("Stay"), his former life ("Paperwork"), grieving over the death of Doe B ("Light Em Up") and yet he still has moments where he reverts back to the T.I.P of yesteryears. Is there any reason he’s making tracks like “Sugarcane,” “G’shit” and “Trap Back Jumpin”? When the music is good, I don’t mind him re-entering the shoes he left in Bankhead, especially when it’s reflective, like Jay on “Seen It All.” When T.I. raps as if the actions are present tense, it’s like he’s trapped in artistic, midlife crisis. It’s like the aging adult that buys a Harley in an attempt to reclaim his youth instead of accepting that things have changed. That’s why I’m bothered that in 2015 he has an album coming out called, Paper Work: The Trap Open. Anytime he talks about drug dealing and gun toting in the present tense, I’m irritated. We see him on a reality show with his family but behind the microphone he sounds like the guy that bought an artillery of guns after the death of his best friend. Is he Doctor Huxtable or Frank Lucas? The American Dad or the American Gangster?
"Still got them choppers, make you run from it / Still ridin' in the Chevy totin' three bricks" - "G-Shit"
When I hear “I Don’t Know” it’s apparent he's still struggling with being T.I. and T.I.P. He speaks with a paranoia that will drive a man to buy an artillery of guns after his best friend is murdered. The kind of overthinking suspicion that will cause a felon on his last strike to buy weaponry after his artist is murdered in his home state. Clifford Harris is a prideful man, the kind of man that will challenge Floyd Mayweather to a battle of fisticuffs to uphold his wife’s honor. He will reject his fame and live by his lyrics, “I don’t know what you would do for your respect, but I’ll die for mine.” A king that can’t enjoy the fruits of his struggles because the glow of gold doesn’t blind him of his past. He isn’t able to bury the T.I.P, yet, there’s no such thing as “mature” trap music. There’s only two places for an old gangster who's still moving bricks, a mansion isn’t one of them.
There’s a scene in Macbeth, the fifth act, where Lady Macbeth is sleep walking while confessing to the murder of her husband. “Out, damn’d spot! Out, I Say!” she yells, hallucinating, so haunted by a murder she's gotten away with that she can only sees her hands covered in blood . She's escaped from her past wrongs everywhere but where it matters, in her mind.
In a way, T.I. hasn’t been able to wash his hands of his past. Most rappers struggle with such problems. Eminem and Slim Shady, Jeezy dropped the young but hasn’t escaped his earlier content, it’s like taking three step forwards and one step back. Rappers like Pusha T, who commit to a narrative and improve within that space, aren’t looked upon with the same scrutiny. I believe T.I. desires to evolve as a rapper, in many ways he has, but he seemingly can't completely escape the trap, to only speak about moving weight and holding glocks in the past tense. What holds him back is when he attempts to repackage his old self. When Jay returned to the streets it was a concept, fictional, American Gangster was his chance to sell kilos again without remaining shackled to the Marcy Projects. T.I, once knighted the southern Jay by Pharrell, now has to decide how to write the later chapters of his career, how to truly become an elder statesman, a general, a king, not a soldier. He’s done incredible things under terrible circumstances. The old albums have been written, praised, and engraved into my generation. It’s time for him to finally forgive himself, embrace his life, let go of the life.
Long live the king with the tilted crown.
[By Yoh, aka the Viscount of the South, aka @Yoh31]