Review of T.I.'s 'No Mercy'

Monday, December 6, 2010; 6:38 PM

There is conventional wisdom about what jail time does to musicians. Whether Johnny Cash, Ray Charles or 2Pac, the trope goes that confinement produces something like reflection - a hardening of the soul and an unfogging of the mind.

It has been a year since T.I. was released from an Arkansas federal prison; it's redemption time. Only this much-delayed seventh album is hardly progress. He sounds more trapped than ever, by his own identity as a star and socially corrected man. T.I. yearns to resonate without sacrificing the cheerily triumphant brand of Southern rap he's excelled at in recent years. He can't have it both ways. Or even one. Clifford Harris, who returned to prison in November after violating his parole stemming from a drug arrest, has made a confused, and worse, dull album.

There are reasons for this: After his most recent legal kerfuffle, T.I. was forced to alter things, including the album's intended bellicose tone and its title, from "King Uncaged" to bland current incarnation "No Mercy." Additionally, four purported singles failed to make the final cut. Instead, there are glib lothario raps, such as "Strip" and "Amazing," surrounded by self-serious, platitudinous songs such as "Big Picture" and "Get Back Up," which features Chris Brown, working a similar rehabilitation strategy with greater commercial success. "My road to redemption has no GPS," T.I. harrumphs on the song. When he does find clarity, it's either through the lens of guests such as Kanye West and Scarface, or with qualifications. On the lush "Castle Walls," produced by rising pop force Alex da Kid, T.I. does so during a tin-eared reading on the imprisonment that wealth and fame enforces. "The king's life seem glamorous/as seen through the eyes of untrained amateurs," he raps. An unfortunately regal perspective, indeed.

- Sean Fennessey

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