T.I.’s seventh studio album, No Mercy, drops unceremoniously today as the artist finds himself in a familiarly disheartening scenario.
The album formerly known as King Uncaged, has seen it’s ups-and-downs parallel the man behind it and now hits shelves as the rapper and actor, once again atones for his transgressions. This time serving an 11-month prison sentence after a federal judge revoked his probation after a felony possession of a controlled substance bust in September.
Once again incarcerated, the album’s themes are very similar to previous releases where the rapper attempts to present a reformed soul to listeners. This time, instead of eating it all up, many of the attempted virtues fall flat on the fatigued ears of listeners who’ve heard the declarations of being a changed man before and are just ready for T.I. to stop talking about them and prove it.
Much like the man himself, it’s hard to make out what No Mercy, is exactly.
Is it the last installment of the T.I. vs. T.I.P., Paper Trail trilogy as once advertised? Or the sincere next phase of T.I.’s artistic arch, where he steps away from the themes that were once his lynch pin? None of those questions are answered definitively.
What’s slightly clearer is that after two years in the making, extended chunks of which the rapper didn’t have direct access to the material to fine tune it, for every step in the right direction and admission of personal vault, T.I. again follows them with a swift and stern excuse of only being human. Even challenging the listeners, who aren’t tired of giving him chances, to ask themselves what qualifications they have to pass any sort of judgment on him, like those same fans hadn’t rode with his ‘only God can judge me’ sell just an album ago.
What’s even harder to believe than the changed man shtick is that a process that saw over 80 songs get recorded with big names like Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Eminem, boiled down to 14 songs of semi-inspired, pseudo-sincerity and outright regurgitated themes.
Kanye West and Kid Cudi join T.I. on “Welcome to the World” and steal the show. Whether it was West dispelling Illuminati rumors with an angry dose of common sense and dropping the line, “soon as Wayne go out, Tip go in,” in reference to the rapper’s revolving door of incarceration. Cudi found his footing as well in a song that felt better suited for his album.
The honesty many hoped for came through in “How Life Changed” only to have its package get in the way. His usually in stride but effortless flow came off disinterested as Scarface’s bright spot of a verse, wasn’t enough to break through the clouds on this track.
Chris Brown’s sincerity delivered more oomph than T.I.’s on “Get Back Up,” where the rapper again called out those who are, justifiably, casting stones against him.
“Big Picture” and “Everything On Me” are both forgettable. While “Amazing” see The Neptunes go awry behind a forced Pharrell chorus and over-the-top, sexual lyrics failing to connect. It really felt like a throwaway track from a mixtape, minus the screaming DJ.
T.I. gets closer to the mark with “I Can’t Help It,” featuring Rocko, and “That’s All She Wrote, featuring Eminem. Both, strong guest appearances find Tip in a comfort zone you rarely hear on the album.
The things No Mercy did well were so simple it hurt.
Understated flows, oozing confidence over dope beats that willingly take a backseat to the rapper’s moxie worked perfectly for tracks like “Salute,” where honesty and braggadocio went hand-in-hand over this Jake One produced jam, and “Strip,” which sees Trey Songz lend his signature innuendo and Young Dro spitting verses in the vain of what made his 2006 album, Best Thang Smokin’, successful.
Club banger to-be, “Poppin’ Bottles” wanders well-worn territory with Drake, without feeling stale. DJ’s may have fun with the futuristic and strangely hypnotic, “Lay Me Down” even if the lyrics fall short of amazing.
The album’s signature moment is undoubtedly “Castle Walls.” Christina Aguilera lends her voice to a track you can easily imagine being a T.I.’s lighter’s up, cell phones in the air, big ending for years to come. Here he spits poignantly about being jaded by Grammy’s, his family issues, the cost of fame and veil of celebrity.
What also worked on this album were lyrics that didn’t try to sell the listener on anything other that himself being cool. The empty bars about how dope he is actually did more to endear No Mercy to me than contrite lines attempting to convince us he’s turning over a new leaf, yet again.
At the end of the album, you don’t come away confident in T.I.’s continued reign as the self-titled, King of the South. A fatigued fan base, tired of defending the indefensible and rolling with cookie-cutter contrition, may actually see No Mercy as the beginning of his descent from that throne while still rooting for his continued success.