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There are two types of people in this world: people who saw the Floyd Mayweather/T.I. fight in the news and had to know what happened. And people who heard about the news and cringed at the idea of having to read about it all day.
Actually, this is a lie. There is one type of person in the world, as far as I can tell, and that is the person who did both of these things, in order. (This person is me, but I'm guessing I'm not alone.) Not just because knowing about things is essential in 2014. But because—be real—you wanted to know why a short, slender (albeit scrappy) Atlanta rapper ended up in a fight with an actual boxer. And you wanted to express your disappointment over that very same fascination.
It's too bad the noise of the interesting/exasperating cycle was so strong for this story, because it obscures Tip's music, which was just again beginning to show signs of life. Tip's latest single with Young Thug, "About the Money," finds the rapper reinvigorated. And it's not his only recent music worth hearing; similar collaborations with Doe B suggest he's still got something the game's been missing.
Of course Tip has never faded in a commercial sense for more than a short time; last year, he was on "Blurred Lines," his fourth trip to the No. 1 spot. His single "Memories Back Then" with Kendrick Lamar and B.o.B. was strong enough to work the charts as well. But like most artists whose best work was created in their career's nascent stages—think Jay Z, Elvis, or Frank Sinatra—T.I. has spent his later years as an established Cultural Institution, respected and celebrated enough to coast on legacy. Singles like last year's "Wit Me" and "The Way We Ride" seem to do well enough; a few million VEVO views here and there. But creatively, they feel vacant relative to his first four or so albums.
As pugnacious and ferocious as his on-record persona could be in the early days, he was never calloused or cold. There was a balance between his anger in the music and the connection he made with listeners, his empathic approach to wrestling with his personal demons. It drew attention to the raw deal he seemed to have gotten in life. Where someone like Gucci may have seemed like a chaotic whirlwind, T.I. had a nobility of purpose that made his initial slip-ups seem defensible in the eyes of his fans. Even his arrest on gun charges seemed understandable in some sense, when one recalls that not long beforehand, he'd watched his good friend murdered in front of him.
The more successful he got, though, it became more difficult to see his out of pocket behavior as a life he was leaving behind. This is all silly audience projection, obviously—a rapper's real life is what it is, and we see its story playing out from a great distance. But this is, I think, a realistic picture of how his fans feel about his career. At a certain point, the dramatic tension between the pull of his old life and the promise of his new one felt resolved, even though he still gets in fights with boxers at Fatburger. We knew what to expect.
Knowing what to expect doesn't mean it's the end of your career. But in Tip's case, it put him at a disadvantage. It's especially noticeable on "Wit Me," where he's up against Wayne. Wayne's style has sustained, even this far after his own arc turned downward. And while it's hard to imagine Wayne ever being as huge as he was in 2008, his verse is reasonably quotable. Wayne's bars are still clever, packed with original images and punchlines. T.I.'s rap style is more fluid and slick, full of energy and technically flawless. But he gets caught up in a tangle of abstract metaphors ("Got the game locked up, couple different angles/Got the outside, inside, middle lane too") and non-specifics, and occasionally stilted phrasing. This isn't a fatal flaw; it existed in his early work too. (Remember: on "What You Know," from peak-era record King, he rapped "he ain't square, he cubed.") But it shows how important context is for his bars to really connect. He needs a focus.
When people talk about the waning relevance of street rappers like T.I. and 50 Cent, it's always seen in the light of gangster rap's demise: Kanye happened, and then being a thug wasn't cool any more. But street rap continued to flourish creatively, even if it lost a hold on the interests of the average suburban listener. But gangster rap was still impacted by the Internet, which diminished a narrative style common to the album era. Writing from a truthful place, in the manner of T.I. circa Trap Muzik, became a huge challenge with the increasing demand for a quantity of songs. To compete with Wayne and Gucci, rappers had to release records at a frenetic pace. But not everyone's writing styles had internal architecture necessary to compete.
However, a handful of young artists have emerged in recent years, as interested in expressing their truths outside of rapidfire punchlines. And although Young Thug owes a debt to Lil Wayne, he's still one of them; I Came From Nothing, the name of his mixtape series, is the subtext of Tip's entire career. The arrival of this new breed of Atlanta rapper creates for T.I. the opportunity for a comeback. Not a commercial one, obviously; He's always been there. But a conceptual and creative one.
So what about "About the Money" makes it stand head and shoulders over anything T.I. dropped recently? There's a purposefulness about his work here—a sense that he remembers the urgency that came with trying to express something that hadn't yet been conveyed, common in his earlier days. And he seems inspired by the presence of a younger star like Young Thug, continually pushing himself to say something new.
It's also a part of why Doe B's passing is such a tragedy. In Doe, Tip had found a sparring partner who brought his best self to the fore. Listen to the brutally efficient bars T.I. brings to the table on UGK remake "Homicide." The difference between this track and his other, less powerful recent work is difficult to nail down. It's not like he's any closer to that life than he was a year ago. But with Doe B and Young Thug, he finds direction. Listlessness is not becoming for Clifford Harris; he needs a mission.