With so many rap careers demolished before their foundations could be properly laid, it’s remarkable that T.I. is still here. After a freshman flop and a brief prison bid, his quest to be crowned “King of the South” has been filled with false starts. In an attempt to tip the scales in his favor, the ATLien filled his third disc, Urban Legend, with potential crossover material like the Jay-Z–samplin’ lead single “Bring ’Em Out.” While the East Coast–flavored cut garnered some mainstream success, it was the Southern-fried “U Don’t Know Me” that slowly unfolded into the biggest song of his career, even snagging a Grammy nomination along the way. Realizing he didn’t need a marquee producer, collar-poppin’ R&B hooks, or to search outside of his Southern stomping ground to find success, T.I. finally comes into his own on his fourth album, King.
This time around, Tip’s ventures outside the Trap sound more like explorations of his talent than attempts at hitting profitable markets. On the epic “King Back,” he effortlessly swaggers over Just Blaze’s hearty Blaxploitation horn squeals and twinkling synthetic bells, before meeting up with Young Jeezy and B.G. on Nick Fury’s tropical bounce “I’m Straight.” Even the Bun B- and Pimp C–assisted “Front Back,” his update of UGK’s 1994 classic “Front Back Side to Side,” comes off sounding supertight, due in part to Mannie Fresh’s reinforced 808s. Then on the rollicking organ-fueled “Told You So,” T.I. rubs his victory in the face of former Arista boss LA Reid, who all but ignored his 2001 debut: “I took my songs to Street/He told me ‘Dope Boyz’ was the bomb in the streets/And then my name rang like an alarm in the street… If only LA knew how wrong he could be.”
T.I.’s mission of proving doubters wrong is successful because of his continued confidence and reliance on consistent collaborators. In the tradition of previous hits like “Dope Boyz,” “Be Easy” and “U Don’t Know Me,” T.I. rekindles his chemistry with DJ Toomp to score his syrupy-synth lead single “What You Know” and the Grand Hustle anthem “Bankhead.” Then in-house producer Khao slaps the organs from Crystal Waters’ 1991 house smash “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)” over a crackling two-step beat to construct “Why You Wanna,” before cooking up the Isley Brothers–based “Hello,” where Tip pines for a former girlfriend: “Is the grass as green as it seemed in your dreams?/Are you getting all the things that you needed and I ain’t bring?”
King lives up to the hype for the most part, but there are instances where the trap star trips up. Take the up-tempo “Stand Up Guy,” where Tip’s goofy hook sounds out of place amid the electronic faux-Timbaland party track, and the lackluster “Undertaker” featuring Young Buck and Young Dro, where he just goes through the motions. Despite these minor infractions, the album is chock-full of enough seasoned street anthems (i.e. “Top Back”) and compelling introspection (i.e. “Live in the Sky”) to make it the best album of T.I.’s career.
It may have been a long time coming, but T.I. is more than ready to carry the crown, as he proclaims on the Neptunes–produced “Goodlife”: “Born into poverty, raised in the sewage/Always be a part of me, made me the truest/Even when my days was the bluest/I never ran from adversity, instead I ran to it.” —BRENDAN FREDERICK