T.I.'s seventh album was supposed to be called King Uncaged. Oops. The Atlanta rapper was released from prison in December 2009 after serving nine months on federal weapons charges. Then, in September, he was arrested for drug possession, and went right back to jail for violating his parole. King Recaged.
For the man born Clifford Joseph Harris Jr., legal troubles have been the rule, not the exception (his rap sheet also includes a conviction for crack distribution). But as bad as the missteps have been for T.I.'s life, they may have been good for his music. He rose to stardom in the early 2000s with a badass hustler persona and the skills to back up his bluster — a suave, sharp flow and a thick Georgian drawl lent a swinging musicality to his darkest drug-game narratives. Even in his sunniest songs, shadows creep in: bursts of conscience and regret, lyrics that chew over crime and punishment, sin and absolution.
No Mercy opens with T.I. crowing about "fast money, fast cars, big diamond rings" on the bombastic "Welcome to the World," but soon enough he's plumbing the depths: "Hey, what the deal, world?/Yeah, it's me again/Back before you, at your mercy/On bended knee again." Sometimes his desire for redemption takes on gospel overtones. "Tell the judge if he throw the book at me, make it the Bible," he cries on the title track.
Make no mistake, T.I. still knows how to throw a party. No Mercy is a sleek pop-rap record: 14 taut, catchy songs with beats from big-name producers (the Neptunes, the-Dream and Tricky Stewart, Dr. Luke) and an array of top-flight guests (Eminem, Kanye West, Drake). No Mercy suggests that, among A-list rappers, T.I. is the one with the most well-honed pop sensibility: The salacious "Amazing" features a skeletal, head-snapping Neptunes beat and insistent hook; and when T.I. downshifts to a slower flow over vibrant funk on "How Life Changed," it's pure narcotic pleasure.
But T.I. also gives voice to a theme seldom heard on rap records: shame. In "How Life Changed," T.I. looks back ruefully at his misspent youth: "Fifteen, 16, with dreams of being cocaine bosses/In pursuit of that, we made so many terrible choices." The featherweight "Get Back Up" is about his more recent terrible choices: "My shortcomings hit the media thanks to TMZ, the AJC and Wikipedia," T.I. rhymes.
No Mercy is the sound of a rapper addressing his idiocy without sacrificing his swagger. Sometimes, the gravitas feels perfunctory, like T.I. is just fulfilling a public-service requirement; other times, it totally backfires. Despite a thundering beat, "Castle Walls" is an icky bit of self-pity from a rich and famous man ("The king's life seem glamorous/ As seen through the eyes of untrained amateurs"). But then T.I. comes up with something like "How Life Changed," which sounds as seductive as it does sincere. Songs like that make you want to believe the guy will eventually get his shit together.