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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

PAPER TRAIL

T.I.

Earlier this year, T.I. had to convince a judge that he was a changed man. Now, as he prepares to serve a reduced 12-month sentence on weapons charges, he wants to convince the rest of the world that he's a changed rapper, too.

His sixth album, "Paper Trail," finds the 28-year-old superstar retracing his missteps, ruing his mistakes and seizing his days in what feels simultaneously like an act of contrition and a triumphal sneer. For the first time since his 2001 debut, T.I. composed his lyrics on paper, and via ink and loose-leaf come the best rhymes of his career.

He takes his newfound powers for a test-drive with "56 Bars," unfurling a 2 1/2 -minute verse over a loping DJ Toomp beat. With horns broiling low in the mix, T.I. brags about himself in syllable-crammed stanzas and tongue-twisting couplets, rushing his boasts and savoring his punch lines. When he hopscotches through the line "You're welcome to ask who you may/Bet they say as of today I'm back on top like a toupee," it doesn't sound cumbersome, it sounds virtuosic -- that Freon-cool drawl bending and stacking words wherever he needs them to go.

But ultimately, "Paper Trail" gives T.I. the floor to meditate on the controversy surrounding his arrest. "Ready for Whatever" is a sober reflection on the paranoia and defensiveness that led to his recent troubles. "Either die or go to jail, that's a hell of a decision," he muses. "But I'm wrong and I know it/My excuse is unimportant/I'm just tryna' let you know that I ain't think I had a choice."

The old T.I. hasn't completely vanished -- fans will recognize the butter-voiced lothario on "Porn Star" and the tough-talking sourpuss on "Swing Ya Rag." They'll also recognize the voices of Justin Timberlake, Rihanna and John Legend, whose contributions should certainly help give the album some legs in pop-land.

But the album's most star-studded turn comes with the unprecedented posse-cut "Swagga Like Us." Trumpeting guest verses from producer Kanye West ("My swagger is Mick Jagger"), Jay-Z ("You can pay for school, but you can't buy class") and Lil Wayne ("Sharper than a swagger dagger"), the collaboration feels like an abominable valentine from rap's Mount Olympus. "Verses autobiographical, absolutely classical," T.I. spits. "Last thing I'm worried 'bout is what another rapper do."

As if it weren't already thrilling enough, West's goose-bump-producing beat features a hook sampled from M.I.A.'s sleeper-hit "Paper Planes." Hear it once, and you'll feel a permanent wrinkle puckering in your brain tissue.

That's good news for T.I. No genre moves faster than here-today/gone-tomorrow hip-hop. His jail sentence might feel like an ice age in rap years, but "Paper Trail" makes an indelible forget-me-not.

T.I. is scheduled to perform at the Patriot Center on Oct. 19.


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