2012, thankfully, has been a little different. T.I. finally relaxed enough to try to regain some of his classic hustling swagger with the down-and-dirty mixtape Fuck Da City Up earlier this year. Backed by bargain basement, dirty-South beats, Tip bared his teeth again and proved he could still bang with the best of them. Fuck Da City Up was a necessary palate cleanser for the decisively unapologetic, if uneven, return to form that is T.I.’s eighth studio album, Trouble Man: Heavy is the Head (out ).
From the first moments of opening track “The Introduction” — which lifts the beat from Marvin Gaye‘s theme to the blaxploitation classic that serves as the album’s namesake — Tip seems ready to completely don the self-aware gangster persona he’s frequently shirked on record since bouncing in and out of jail recently: “I’m just a hood n***a, I ain’t ever had shit / Just a bad attitude and a bad bitch/Duffle bag full of 2′s and a half-brick/ Thirty, forty, fifty grand in the mattress.”
This is a far cry from the weary laments that plagued No Mercy with a vague sluggishness. When T.I. shines on Trouble Man, he’s not mired in heavy-handed self-reflection. Tracks like the stomping fuck-off “G Season” (complete with a wheezing and almost incoherent Meek Mill), the classic, bad-ass cruising jam “The Way We Ride” and the consolidation-of-power anthem “Who Want Some,” featuring a forest-leveling assault of a beat from DJ Toomp, all hover close to the assured snarls of T.I.’s best work.
The flip side to those successes is a nonexistent level of nuance. There’s nothing subtly interesting about his half-hearted stabs at Hot 100 success, like the Pink-assisted “Guns and Roses” or when he’s giving a theology class on “Hallelujah,” and Trouble Man deflates accordingly.
Luckily, the album’s standout track, the shimmering “Sorry” featuring Andre 3000, manages to merge T.I.’s casually compelling boasts with tempered wisdom. But, in truth, “Sorry” belongs to Three Stacks, who nearly steals the album with the guest spot of the year (even T.I. admitted it).
Dre uses his bars to work through his fear of success, and speaks to Big Boi directly about going off the radar after Speakerboxx/The Love Below. “And this the type of shit that’ll make you call your rap partner / And say I’m sorry / I’m awkward / My fault for fuckin’ up the tours.”
But even when the occasional guest spot outshines T.I.’s own verses, Trouble Man is an important transitional album, one that shows flashes of brilliance amidst brief instances of lingering stagnation. The good news is Tip’s hungry again and back to his old tricks, and if he quits with all the retirement talk, his next release could be the classic we’re all waiting for.
The Best Song that Wasn’t the Single: On “Who Want Some,” T.I.’s a hard man, rapping over a harder beat, challenging the entire world to a fight. It’s a mixtape banger on steroids that comes closest to replicating old school Tip.
Pops Like: A de-fanged King, but Trouble Man still possesses a few moments that can stack up with T.I.’s hardest tracks.
Idolator Rating: 3/5
— Patrick Bowman