Get acquainted with the youngest in charge/Respected from East to West like he was running the mob,” rapped Atlanta native T.I. on last year’s King, whose title referred to his status as the reigning monarch of Southern hip-hop. This wasn’t idle boasting. King was the best-selling rap record of 2006, going double-platinum. T.I. was all over the radio and TV, pimping Chevys andwinning a Grammy for the killer single “What You Know.” The album highlighted what T.I. does best: hypnotic hip-hop built on big, shiny synth hooks and nimble yet thickly drawled rhymes about piles of cash, slinging dope and his overarching badassness. Here was a guy who claimed to represent the South but who sounded as much like Jay-Z as he did Young Jeezy — and whose ambition was clearly worldwide.
So what to do for an encore? Put out a record too soon, apparently. T.I. vs T.I.P. sounds like the work of a man on top and determined to stay there by any means necessary: T.I. rhymes about the perks and pains of megastardom,and flashes Glocks in order to remind us he’s still street, all the while darkening and amping up his sound with a king’s ransom of keyboard-driven bangers. The kind of expertly constructed tracks,irrepressible hooks and sense of fun that went into King are present on about half of T.I. vs T.I.P. The other half sounds overheated and undercooked at the same time — oppressive, nonstop braggadocio backedwith so-so beats.
With production from Just Blaze as well as esteemed Southerners like Mannie Fresh and the Runners, T.I. vs T.I.P. boasts the latest in hardcore synth beats — long on tweedly hooks, brooding chords and deftly syncopated electro-percussion, and shorter on innovation than you’d hope. Nothing quite compares to the mesmerizing pulse and regal hooks that fueled “What You Know,” but some tracks get close: The Wyclef-produced “You Know What It Is” underpins T.I.’s ultracatchy chorus with a skittery beat that’s almost reggaeton, and the mix of speaker-shaking bounce and eerie, operatic keyboards and vocals makes”Tell ‘Em I Said That” the album’s strongest cut. The Nelly feature “Show It to Me” rides bright, horn-specked funk that could have come from Earth, Wind and Fire; compared with all the dour stuff, it’s a relief, and a sound that T.I. would have done well to visit more often.
The title concept — T.I. trading rhymes with his alter ego T.I.P. — means the rhymes fall into two basic categories: over-the-top boasts and thug fantasies, the latter mostly courtesy of T.I.P., the Mr. Hyde to T.I.’s Dr. Jekyll. You get T.I. boasting about making eight-figure deals and bagging girls in the South of France, and T.I.P. threatening gunviolence and dropping cuts like “Da Dopeman.” Neither persona has muchto say that you haven’t heard before, though somehow it takes them/him eighteen tracks to say it. The rhyme skills are still there, all right — T.I.’s disses against haters on “Big Shit Poppin’ (Do It)” or the slow-rolling, Jay-Z-assisted “Watch What You Say to Me” are pleasures in and of themselves. But too much of a hood thing — not to mention rampant self-obsession and too many dark, murky beats — make T.I. vs T.I.P. sound light on fresh ideas.