Old T.I. is dead and gone

In order for a rapper to claim they are the best at their craft, one needs credible music backed by sales, marketability, mainstream appeal and a diverse fan base. The easier road is often taken by making headlines through guns, drugs and run-ins with the law for the ever-elusive battle known as ‘street cred.’

Then there is T.I., a killer concoction that epitomizes the success of bridging the gap between selling rocks on the corner and selling you one of the year’s best rap albums in the ‘Paper Trail.’

His third consecutive No. 1 album is book ended by house arrest for a federal weapons conviction and a one-year jail sentence looming for March 2009. In the interim, Clifford Joseph Harris Jr. used his newly-found time and wrote down lyrics for this 16-track compilation, a practice he had abandoned with the 2001 released album, ‘I’m Serious.’

T.I. currently occupies the top-two spots on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart with ‘Whatever You Like’ and ‘Live Your Life,’ sets that have created a buzz since the album initially debuted in late September and a testament that he is as mainstream as ever.

However, the album has more to it than these radio-dominating cuts. The self-proclaimed ‘King of the South’ demonstrates he has improved significantly since his last album ‘T.I. vs. T.I.P.’

The ‘Paper Trail’ marks a new beginning for the Atlanta-based rapper as he chiefly details the last year of his life and what the future holds for him during and after his prison sentence. The album’s theme is cashed in on the last song, as T.I. sends his audience off with ‘Dead and Gone.’

He aims for further crossover appeal and again collaborates with Justin Timberlake following their hit ‘My Love.’ The Timberlake produced track previews the new T.I. from here on out as he says, ‘No more stress, now I’m straight, now I get it, now I take time to think before I make mistakes just for my family’s sake. That part of me left yesterday, the heart of me is strong today, no regrets I’m blessed to say, the old me dead and gone away.’

In ‘Ready for Whatever’ and ‘No Matter What,’ T.I. further details his legal situation and the troubles throughout his life.

He and Ludacris set aside their much publicized tumult and the A-town duo deliver with ‘On Top of the World,’ a connection the south and the like have been anticipating for years.

The mainstream actors discuss the newfound limelight in both rapping, Hollywood and the ill after effects from money, cars and women with lines from Luda like, ‘the places I’m about to go and the money I’m bout to see, gave Bill Gates some binoculars and said look out for me.’

T.I. creates rap’s version of the Dream Team with ‘Swagga Like Us,’ a boastful opus featuring the game’s finest in Kanye West, Jay-Z and Lil’ Wayne telling everyone how superior they are to second-rate talent.

In the song, Kanye goes for ‘that Kobe number, one over Jordan,’ Jay-Z admits he can’t wear skinny jeans because his knots don’t fit and Weezy declares his swagger is sharper than an all-metal dagger. T.I. saves his verse for last and doesn’t let his guests out-swag him as he delivers quotables throughout the set and ends with ‘flow colder than February with extraordinary swag.’

Some of rap’s best content is delivered through thought-provoking lyrics written from the pen. Who knows what T.I. will have in store upon his release from jail in 2010? What is for sure is that the ‘Paper Trail’ has much wider appeal than just with his followers and is an album that will end up in the upper half of his discography once he calls it a career.

Four stars out of five.