T.I. begins his debut studio album with “Still Ain’t Forgave Myself,” an autobiographical recollection of memories that painted a picture of the life he was living prior to rapping. He details the glocks in his toy box, interacting with drug fiends at the age of 13, and how he dropped out of school with hopes that rapping or trapping would be more lucrative than sitting in classrooms. T.I. walks us through getting pulled over at 16 with two pounds of weed and a .380, possibly the first time he was ever arrested.
The police would continue to play a role in his life; before and after his rise to rap stardom. From shooting an unauthorized music video in jail to all the times he was arrested between album releases, T.I. has had a long history with law enforcement.
T.I. has kept his distance from trouble since his last arrest, but in 2016, he has a different relationship with law enforcement. Instead of being silent, T.I. is a thunderous voice against America’s problem with police brutality. Back in July, T.I. joined thousands of marchers in Atlanta to walk in protest against police brutality that has been occurring all across America. Pictures and videos were uploaded to his Twitter and Instagram sharing what he witnessed while with the people. It didn’t stop there. T.I. continued to upload videos about social injustice in the weeks that followed the protest. This was the first step toward using his platform to take a more political stance on the problems that are plaguing our country.
Using his social media to raise awareness about the issues brought attention to T.I., but nothing he uploaded can compare to the music video for “Warzone.” It’s incredible, I consider the visual the most powerful of his career. He cleverly retells the story of Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and Eric Garner with white lives are taken by officers of color. It’s not just the video. In his verses, T.I. is extremely transparent about his feelings on America. The hook recites, “Hands up, can’t breath,” the hashtags that followed the deaths of Tamir and Eric. “Warzone” was the first single off T.I.’s US or Else EP. The 6-track project was released exclusively on Tidal late last night.
I wrote last year that it was time for T.I. to leave the trap, but I didn’t expect him to enter the political ring as his new battleground.
US or Else starts strong with “We Will Not.” The production bangs with the force of two semi-trailer trucks colliding and T.I. deliver his views of the world with aggression and passion. There’s no hook, just a stream-of-consciousness that touches on everything from misleading leaders and systemic racism, to athletes taking a stand and unity. The old T.I. would’ve gone a completely different direction with such a beat, but he made sure that trunks will rattle despite his new subject matter. Sonically, US or Else fits right in with T.I.’s accustomed sound, but it’s his perspective that has been adjusted to fit the times we live in.
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With only six songs, three of them are filled with features. “Black Man” brings together Meek Mill, Rara, and Quavo Wonder to give insight on their experience with police officers as black men.The beat is another banger, it feels trap-esque with a sprinkle of gospel soulfulness. I can’t put my finger on the sample but it sounds like something J. Cole used on a song for Born Sinner. T.I.’s verse highlights more current events, and even states that if the police kill him it will be more than riots and looting. A powerful statement that makes you wonder what would happen if a famous rap artist was a casualty to police brutality. “Switchin Lanes” has the bounce, T.I.’s first verse flow is fluid and Big K.R.I.T matches him an even more immaculate delivery. The song isn’t filled with a message that surrounds public-affairs but there are undertones in both verses.
“40 Acres” has the most outrageous chorus, but the song is worth hearing just for Killer Mike’s verse. If the song was just Killa Killa it would be holy shit worthy; his flow, his delivery, his lyricism―it’s astounding. We really need to have a long discussion about Killer Mike’s consistency and how he's been a hip-hop jewel since the days of Outkast. “I Swear” ends the project with T.I.’s best lyrical performance. He gives us his viewpoint on being someone who is successful, but that success doesn’t mean the world is as pretty as a rainbow after the storm.
For most of the album T.I. was reporting on world issues, but “I Swear” captures him at his most introspective. When he has to think about his children’s children growing up in this world the temporary pleasures aren’t so gratifying. “Knowing they rather see me in prison than Stanford,” is the last line rapped on the album, but it’s also one that resonated the most.
I enjoyed US or Else more than some of T.I.’s more recent projects. He sounds driven, focused, and passionate about the subject he’s covering. My initial thoughts about removing T.I. from the trap was because he started to sound trapped by the music. Touching on the issues happening in America gave him the freedom of a bald eagle soaring through the sky.
It does get a bit preachy at times, and for many T.I. isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before. But it hasn’t been said by him, and over such production. I honestly believe that T.I. isn’t doing this for publicity and relevance, he truly cares about a better tomorrow, a better America. We are constantly seeing videos of police murdering black people, it’s natural for artists to be inspired, and want to speak out. J. Cole made “Be Free” because he was moved, Common’s next album is about the current black experience in America was made because he's inspired by all that is going on, and many other artists are creating powerful art by channeling the pain of yesterday's news.
T.I. has marched with the people, delivered a powerful message with “Warzone,” and US or Else is a solid companion to all he has done as he steps into a more activist role. Hopefully, he will continue to find moving ways to spread awareness through his platform.
By Yoh, aka Yoh Got It For Da L-O, aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: Roc Nation