"Diamonds & Wood" is an ongoing series in which music critic Shea Serrano breaks down the 5 hip-hop tracks you need to hear this week.
T.I. is not that big. That's something I knew before—I have eyeballs and I have a television so I've seen him and also there was that song in 2004 where he mentioned weighing 145 pounds—but that is something I KNOW now because I just spent the evening standing no further than twenty, but no closer than four, feet away from him.
He was at a very impressive recording facility in Houston, TX called Wire Road Studios with (a) members of the media, (b) other rappers and (c) hangers-on. He was there as part of the promotional tour for his new album, Trouble Man, the eighth of his career and the first since he's been out of incarceration. I'd received a phone call the day prior from someone at Atlantic Records asking me if I wanted to attend. I said yes because T.I. is WAY more interesting than The Office.
If you've never been to one of these things before, it's pretty simple: A lot of people gather into a small space and pick at various foodstuffs until a person announces things are going to start, then 40 minutes later a rapper walks out and thanks everyone for coming, says a few words, then a song comes on and everyone pretends to like it about 40 percent more than they probably do, then the music stops and the rapper talks again and then the next song comes on and just repeat the last two steps of that process until the end of the album. During explanations, nearly all rappers say the same sorts of things: "I was just speaking from the heart." "This song really means a lot to me." "This is that real hip-hop." Things like that. T.I. was no different. He did, however, manage to use the word "narrative" twice while discussing the intro, which I guess is proof that he reads Pitchfork.
T.I. really is magnetic (FYI, he pointed this very point out in the extended video he played before he began playing the album )and that's always neat to see. He was always smiling or bouncing to his music or shaking someone's hand, etc. He just seemed so effortlessly cool in person, which is odd because on TV it always looks like he's trying extra hard.
For being such a diminutive person, T.I. travels massively. There were three very large Mercedes vans parked out front that, I suspect, were for him. I kept picturing him in his office shouting at his manager, "TWO!? TWO?! WHAT THE FUCK AM I SUPPOSED TO DO WITH TWO MERCEDES VANS?! WHO AM I?! A GODDAMN HOMELESS MAN!? AND WHAT HAPPENS IF THE TWO VANS GET INTO AN ACCIDENT WITH EACH OTHER?! THEN WHAT? DID YOU EVER EVEN THINK OF THAT, JERRY?"
Despite being a private listening party, the event was heavily populated. As such, proper seats were at a premium. The thing I accidentally learned about humans: There is definitely a relationship between the amount of time a man will wait to take another man's seat and how large the man getting up is. If a skinny dude leaves his chair, that shit gets taken IMMEDIATELY. If a larger man gets up though, the potential seat swiper will inevitably wait to see if the big guy is coming back or not before he swipes. Courtesy is measured on a sliding scale, it seems.
There was a guy there that had hair almost exactly like Lil Flip, which is maybe the best kind of terrible hair that anyone can have. "I'm about to get my hair braided and SHUT THIS BITCH DOWN," he probably said to himself a couple of hours before he arrived.
There's a moment early in "Sorry," one of the album's strongest tracks, where T.I. declares, "Never mind what the blogs say," and right at the very moment when that part came on he looked at me dead in my eyes, pointed at me, then made a throat slice action with his index finger. That shit actually happened, yo.
That shit did not actually happen, yo.
It's hard to say with any certainty (curiously, the listening party setting is maybe one of the worst ways to digest an album), but Trouble Man sounds to be an inspired, hefty effort. There's one song on there about riding around in a car that is undeniably brilliant, reason enough to purchase the tape. Conversely, there's an unfortunate love song on there too. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, I suppose.
T.I. has spent no small amount of energy making sure that everyone understands he is a tough, FUCK YOU IF YOU DON'T LIKE ME, I'LL DO WHAT I WANT person. During the first few minutes of talking, he specifically mentioned how he'd been in trouble, but that's who he is and he wouldn't change anything and sometimes you just have to do what you have to do. Fuck rules, basically. There were even big cardboard cutouts of T.I. holding a baseball bat propped up around the studio. Still, about 30 minutes before he came out, somebody walked around and asked a bunch of adults to turn their cell phones off. I don't know. It seemed funny.
I like T.I. more today than I did yesterday, and that's maybe the whole point of these sorts of things.
1. Mystikal, "Hit Me"
If I had even a tiny amount of balls, I'd just post this song five times in a row and tell you it's all you ever need to know about having ears. It is GODDAMN AMAZING. My caps lock key isn't close to big enough to explain how wonderful this is. Every list ever written about anything needs to be rewritten. Mystikal rules all.
2. The Game, "Jesus Piece," featuring Kanye West and Common
I'm jealous of Jayceon.
3. hasHBrown, "1994"
This one is so underground that I don't even think hasHBrown has heard of hasHBrown. A bunch of things to like here:
-That he dance battles everyone that he disregards. (Life would be about 1,000 times better if, rather than argue or yell or fight, you could just have this guy show up, do a dismissive dance, then walk away.)
-That he's wearing a shirt that advertising he is exactly 0 percent half steppin'.
-That the are actual DJ cuts.
-That the lady singer, Miss Jaye, not only replicated the 1994 look, but also the atmospherics.
4. Trinidad James, "All Gold Everything"
History class is the worst. Like, I mean, I hated that shit in school. Or, at least I did, until I learned maybe the only macro lesson anyone ever needs to know. I remember being in 10th grade history thinking I was hot shit, not trying to do work and just being a terrible person. The teacher, this homely woman with arms too long for her body, started digging me up in front of everyone. And I was like, "Look, ma'am, I sure this is all very important to you. It's your life. You're, like, 90, so you were probably around for all of the stuff you're telling us about. And, you know, cool, cool, but seriously, like, no joke at all, why would anyone ever need to learn this stuff?" And she looked at me, and without missing a beat, in maybe the most dismissive way anyone has ever said anything to me, responded, "Mr. Serrano, if you don't learn about the past, it will happen again." AND THAT SHIT ROCKED MY WHOLE LIFE. I mean, I realized later that that's a thing basically every person involved in academia says maybe 20 times a week to some shitty kid, but it was the first time I'd heard it. And it made total sense. If I don't learn about this horrible thing, it might happen again. That's why we're linking to this video. That's the only reason.
5. Snoop Lion, "Here Comes The King"
This shit is actually happening.
Shea Serrano is a writer living in Houston, TX. His work has appeared in the Houston Press, LA Weekly, Village Voice, XXL, The Source, Grantland and more. You can follow him on Twitter here.