Art and reality often collide. It’s unavoidable, because art often comes from life. Almost since its inception, hip hop has struggled with the line between reality and fantasy. “Fake” rappers have been called out, by “real” rappers, who in turn have had to deal with a bevy of legal problems over the years. The question remains, and probably will always be debated, as to how much reality matters. I believe it matters some, but it’s not necessarily essential. Personally, I feel there should be a foundation of reality, for which fictional narrative and even far-fetched fantasy can be built upon.
When I first heard some tracks off Trouble Man: Heavy is the Head, I lambasted the album before fully giving it a chance. However, upon multiple spins, I am able to see it for what it is.
T.I. starts off the album with “The Introduction,” which coolly opens with Marvin Gaye’s soft singing from his classic “Trouble Man” joint. The singing leads into T.I. sounding more rejuvenated than he’s been since “I’m Illy” in 2008. “I’m just a hood n***a, I ain’t never had shit,” he raps over a characteristically dope DJ Toomp beat. With all of T.I.’s legal problems over the years- he’s been to prison three times since his rise to fame- it’s not hard to believe that he is in part still the same old Tip from Bankhead.
This is where things get blurry. T.I. has lived a troubled life- that is not in dispute. In fact, the best songs off Trouble Man embrace his past issues with the law and loved ones. “Wildside” starts with a re-enactment of one of T.I.’s drug arrests, which leads into a smooth hook provided by A$AP Rocky and raps about T.I.’s days in the trap. The song works because it is clear T.I. is rapping about days past. “Can you picture me in ‘93/Bumpin’ Dr. Dre while I hit some weed…my uncle gave me a bunch of work and that shit was gone by the next mornin’,” he raps. Other songs contain re-enactments of T.I.’s 2007 gun-bust and his friend Philant Johnson’s murder.
Where Trouble Man fails is on songs that T.I. tries to rap from a present perspective about selling drugs and busting guns. “G Season,” “Trap Back Jumpin’” and“Who Want Some” sound good, but they just don’t have the same sting that “24s”and “ASAP” had, for two reasons. One, Tip has been down that road so many times before, and there are only so many times a rapper can sound fresh with the same lyrical content. Two, his reality show portrays an admirable family man taking his family camping, teaching his son how to ride a bike, and making sure his kids study hard. Even with duality considered, it’s difficult to get excited about T.I. rapping about showing us “how to move a lot of blow,” after seeing his obvious growth and maturity as a man.
Fortunately, there aren’t enough songs like these to keep Trouble Man from being a solid album. Aside from the tired “Get It,” and “Sorry,”which features great lyrics but suffers from a mediocre beat and a bad hook, the rest of the songs connect. Tip is in all his classic forms here. “Ball” is a dope club song and “Can You Learn” showcases his ability to successfully cater to both street and female audiences without sounding forced. “Addresses”is the one hardcore song that really connects, because it’s a diss track (I’ll let you figure out who he’s dissing). Let’s be honest, what good diss track doesn’t have harsh threats?
Just like on Paper Trail, T.I.’s last worthy album, the last two songs on the album are the highlights. “Wonderful Life” raps from perspectives of Philant, Clifford Harris Sr. and Tip himself. T.I.’s vulnerability is more pronounced than ever, making the song the best on the album. With the album’s closer, “Hallelujah,” T.I. effortlessly does what Game struggled to do on Jesus Piece; he weaves narratives of troubled men in the Bible with his own struggles. There are no cheap gimmicks or outlandish claims; T.I. is rapping about his faith in an honest, down-to-earth manner.
The production on Trouble Man is appropriate with the subject matter. Even on the album’s weaker songs, the production is strong. “Can You Learn,” “Cruisin’,” “Wonderful Life” and “Hallelujah” are respectively, musically soulful, smooth, deep and spiritual. Familiar faces Pharrell and Jazze Pha show up, while T.I. continues his growing chemistry with T-Minus. As far as features go, T.I. has long shown he can pick solid collaborations. In particular, R. Kelly, A$AP Rocky and Andre 3000 produce highlight performances. Yet, save Andre’s show-stealing verse on “Sorry,” T.I. remains in the driver’s seat throughout Trouble Man.
T.I.’s future in hip hop is unclear. He previously said he wanted out of rap, but recently announced a sequel to Trouble Man. His other business interests and reality TV show may provide less incentive for Tip to keep rhyming. Regardless of the future, we can be grateful to T.I. for providing another solid album. Trouble Man is not on par with Trap Muzik or even Urban Legend, as the forced hardcore songs bog down the album a bit. However, the majority of Trouble Man features excellent, honest songs from a man who, above all else, knows one thing: trouble.