Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rapper(s) Of the Decade: A Mixtape Series

Rapper(s) of the Decade is a mixtape series curated by myself that will span 2010. Each month I'll be dedicating a mixtape to the 12 Rappers and Groups I felt proved most instrumental in shaping the last decade in Hip Hop in no particular order. The first Installment belongs to T.I.

Download:The King Of Swag

Life is like a chess move, you need to make your next move your best move. A dictum young Clifford Joseph Harris Jr. once lived by as he navigated Hip Hop’s backwaters to stardom. T.I. was initially thought of as an emaciated, yappy egoist ballsy enough to battle the then chart crushing Lil Flip. At the time it seemed like Houston would serve as the capital of Southern Hip Hop, but in the course of 2-3 years T.I. had ascended to Monarch of the Aughts’ First Rap City, Atlanta GA. During the last decade, right up to its unfortunate, foolish conclusion, T.I. led a model career in Hip Hop, doing it all and making it look easy. Here’s how.

For a kid raised on boom bap who thought of the Dungeon Family as exotic, T.I. was invaluable in liberating my prejudices from their Northeastern borders. I was still trying to wrap my mind around a guy who wrote like Jeezy being good. Scarface had always been there and it seemed little more than a coincidence that the Clipse hailed from Newport News. Tip helped show me the way, a middle ground between what seemed like alien regional madness and the content/punchline driven flow I was weaned on.

Start with the fact that he’s a brilliant writer. You can’t listen to his introspective shit without acknowledging the vast superiority of his material to almost any of his peers who dared to try their hands at the same fare. His debut dropped a month after The Blueprint, and as Jay-Z refused to let his tears fall, angry at his girl for having the nerve to return his infidelity, T.I. poured his heart out. He embraced his contradictions, never played the hero. He begged his loved ones and listeners for forgiveness without the semblance of limp-wristed emo.

But he wasn’t just another pen. Fast or slow, with Justin Timberlake or Big Kuntry King, T.I. might be the best pure rapper to emerge since Biggie, a lofty superlative but one I feel safe floating. It’s all there in his rhythm, sense of timing, the precocious confidence he embodied from his very first track. There’s no beat he can’t ride, no mood he can’t convey, no occasion he can’t rise to. Like Ludacris just before him, Cliff is a Southern MC with classically honed chops and a wit to boot. In his shit bomb ATL, a friend from New York makes light of T.I.’s beloved use of “shawty” and he proudly stands behind it, a detail essential to his style and success. T.I. certainly didn’t introduce drawl to Hip Hop but he makes most before him sound like Supreme Court litigators. You could argue for the deeper fried 8Balls, Rubes and Gipps and you’d be right, but Tip doesn’t sacrifice ferocity or nimbleness to get his accent across, it’s tightly wound metronomic rap that basks in its roots. Broken language bubbling up like hock grease in simmering greens.

The comparisons extend to Jay-Z, T.I.’s Northern forerunner, perhaps the only rapper who can boast equal versatility in his prolific catalog of Clear Channel classics. The accompanying mixtape is chock full of singles, not common for an internet mix, but with a popular artist this gifted if you don’t study the hits you’re missing the point. Tip’s albums are models of balanced fluidity, covering every base well; but not in the numb, soul killing, focus grouped Curtis Jackson sense that obliterated the bulk of the past ten years and in many ways took rap past the album. As T.I. skips from boast, to menace, to lothario and back again we’re watching a prodigy at work.

For me he’s at his best on his pimp shit. T.I. is an A-list talent in Big Budget schlock when practicing Rap and Bullshit, letting the object of his affection and his audience know he’s better than his material. On songs like “Why you Wanna” he’s not trying to get pussy, it’s a foregone conclusion. Through the world weary hints and tiny inflections, he’s telling us the lover man schtick is just as laughable to him as it is to us, but it will work.

As you’ll see throughout this selection, Cliff has an unparalleled ear for great production, perhaps none finer than “Rubber Band Man”, the first T.I. song I ever sat up for and probably my favorite to date. David Banner delivers the beat of the decade, one that takes Shawty Redd and later Toomp’s enormous wall of sound that would define gigantic Southern production and renders it fun. A seventh inning stretch organ, a chorus of ecstatic children and distinctive vocal bass stomps combine for a nearly overwhelmingly joyful and triumphant experience. For an MC with Tip’s ability this is a softball lob and he crushes it, updating a Detroit Spinners story about the supreme entertainer and painting himself as a modern day hustling Robin Hood, A Brer Rabbit, a folk hero we can all settle in and get used to because he’s going to be here for a while. With the chorus he employs a fine example of the patented T.I. hook: between 6-8 bars rapped with just a touch more melody than he brings to his narcotic couplets, instantly quotable and destined to be bouncing around in your head for months, whether you decide to burn through it ad nauseum through your ear buds or not.

Just before Christmas a 29 year old Harris was sent somewhere between jail and freedom. Who knows what music he’ll bring back to society with him. As long as he keeps making large, gorgeous anthems we’ll be there riding for it. With all his syrup addled weirdness, perhaps I can be forgiven in excluding Wayne and thinking of T.I.P. as the decade’s true emergent superstar. An undeniable talent that regardless of your taste, be it highbrow or low, Old school or Indie, you can’t help but love. Without further ado ladies, gentleman: the King is dead. Long live the King of Swag.

1. I’m Talkin to You King (2006)
2. I’m a King P$C- 25 to Life (2005)
3. You Know What It Is (ft. Wyclef) T.I. Vs. T.I.P. (2007)
4. Let Me Tell You Something Trap Muzik (2003)
5. Bankhead (ft. P$C & Young Dro) King (2006)
6. King on Set (ft. Young Dro) More than a Game OST (2009)
7. Bezzle (ft. 8ball, MJG & Bun B) Trap Muzik (2003)
8. Fly As Me (ft. Governer) Gangsta Grillz: The Leak (2006)
9. 3 Kings (ft. Slim Thug & Bun B) Already Platinum (2005)
10. Rubber Band Man Trap Muzik (2003)
11. Message to the Government Tapemasters Inc: I Am (T.I. Vs. T.I.P.) (2007)
12. Why You Wanna King (2006)
13. What They Do (ft. B.G.) Urban Legend (2004)
14. Act Like It (ft. Snoop Dogg) The Transporters: Southern Smoke 32 (2008)
15. Doin My Job Trap Muzik (2003)
16. What’s Yo Name I’m Serious (2001)
17. So Many Diamonds (ft. Paul Wall) The People’s Champ (2005)
18. Big Shit Poppin T.I. Vs. T.I.P. (2007)
19. Whatever You Like Paper Trail (2008)
20. Still Ain’t Forgave Myself I’m Serious (2001)


Robert said...

Pardon me coming late to the party, but how do you NOT have "What You Know" on this mixtape? For "The King of Swag", "What You Know" is an anthem, a song that is Tip's most defining of the artist in production and lyrics.

Abe Beame said...

You should check the comments on the Kanye mixtape. I don't disagree with you.