T.I. has it all wrong: Longing for a former version of yourself is a pastime best suited to athletes who peaked when they were wearing their JV uniforms or businessmen who invested in Amway instead of Apple—not rap superstars. T.I. had one of the biggest albums of last year with King, one of the best singles of the decade with “What You Know,” and starred in ATL, a film set in his hometown that received much better reviews than most cinematic vehicles for rappers. So if T.I. is such a force, why does he insist on hanging out with T.I.P.—the angrier, mouthier version of himself who appears on T.I.’s new album, T.I. Vs T.I.P.?
For those who let their subscription to Sister 2 Sister lapse: T.I.’s former rap moniker was T.I.P., or Tip, but as his career took off, he decided to call himself simply T.I. out of respect for A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip. Considering that T.I. is currently the biggest rapper in the world, he’s spending an awful lot of time lamenting that lost “P.”
Maybe he’s been bitten by the European cinema bug and has been watching Blind Chance or Run Lola Run, movies that feature characters whose lives splinter off into parallel existences. Maybe he’s in the midst of an existential crisis and is concerned that the path that led to his platinum status could end up fraught with more hardships than the one that would’ve kept him a Rubberband Man stuck in the trap. Or perhaps he’s just been watching a lot of ’80s sitcoms and wanted to use split-screen technology in videos and promotional photos where he could appear as his own twin.
More likely, he really is missing those old days. T.I. had a great 2006 professionally, but his personal life hasn’t gone as smoothly. Last year, his assistant Philant Johnson was shot and killed; earlier this year, his longtime on-again, off-again girlfriend, Tameka “Tiny” Cottle of Xscape, suffered a miscarriage. T.I. Vs T.I.P. is dedicated to T.I.’s fallen best friend and daughter, but the album contains little mention of how the tragedies awoke the aggressive T.I.P. that had been lying dormant inside of him. The split-personality concept would make sense if T.I.P. were more clearly established as T.I.’s inner thug or as a symbol of private torment coming to the surface, but the best illustration of this notion seems to be the Doublemint-inspired photos in the CD booklet.
It’s clear that T.I.P. is a grimy hothead, while T.I. is more of a mellow, business-minded kind of guy; they just happen to share a face, a voice, and, unfortunately, a love of Wyclef Jean cameos. (T.I.P. duets with the Fugee on “You Know What It Is,” and T.I. enlists him for “My Swag.”) But the album is the musical equivalent of a McD.L.T.—there’s a hot side and a cool side, and they are neatly segregated. T.I.’s appeal is in mixing those two sensations, and on T.I. Vs T.I.P. he unwisely decides to isolate the elements of T.I.’s personality that have worked in tandem to make Clifford Harris a household name.
The album begins by introducing T.I.P., who, posing as T.I., establishes himself as a badass by committing that most gangster of acts: spending record-label advance money without producing an album. After telling Warner Music Group CEO Lyor Cohen to go fuck himself and forget about new material until 2028, T.I.P. digs into five tracks meant to further illustrate his rage. “Big Shit Poppin’ (Do It)” is easily the weakest lead single of any T.I. album, a fact that has everything to do with T.I. focusing more on the exercise of portraying T.I.P. than on rapping. The Mannie Fresh track is adequate—it sounds exactly like “Top Back,” another Mannie-T.I. project, but it’s hard to blame the former Hot Boy for plagiarizing himself—why waste a fresh beat on some rapper’s schizophrenic fit?
Lil C’s “Raw,” with its trumpet-procession hook, sounds like something that might be played at a modern coliseum before a battle, which fits with a line of T.I.P.’s chorus, “You ain’t graduated with the gladiators/You just practice with the young assassinators.” On “Watch What You Say to Me,” T.I.P. still isn’t better than pure, unadulterated T.I., but, as it turns out, he is better than guest Jay-Z. Mr. Def Jam still has rhyme amnesia, it seems, and somehow the former rap god allows himself to be outdone by not just a newer, hipper rapper but a newer, hipper rapper’s imaginary friend. Still, other than showing up Hova, T.I.P. mostly settles for lackluster tracks such as “Da Dopeman” and “Hurt,” featuring Alfa Mega and Busta Rhymes.
After T.I.P. has finished showing off, T.I. regains control of the disc. A skit informs us that T.I. “slept through” T.I.P.’s little stunt with the record label, and now he must fix the havoc his alter ego has wrought. Luckily, our hero is equipped with superpowers that will not only allow him to save hip-hop but also fortify the economies of foreign lands with his extravagant spending and to steal lesser men’s girlfriends.
“Help Is Coming,” whose rhyme is nothing more than an outline of how T.I. has kept hip-hop alive in these times of abysmal record sales, would be egomaniacal if the man hadn’t sold nearly half a million copies of T.I. Vs T.I.P. its first week out. The track is typical Just Blaze bombast—urgent strings mixed with guitar mixed with a couple of synthesized keyboard lines that sound like something the Tri-Lambs might have played during a Revenge of the Nerds concert. T.I. pulls a KRS-One and brags that he is hip-hop—and apparently hip-hop is a big ol’ pimp. “Now see hip-hop with six bitches/In the ATL see hip-hop chillin’/In a multimillion-dollar crib hip-hop buildin’/You know how many cars hip-hop’s driven?/Nigga, I’m everything hip-hop’s missin’,” T.I. rhymes. Whether T.I. is rap music’s savior or not, “Help Is Coming” is one of the album’s strongest tracks, which makes you wonder—if we’re now witnessing the greatness of a man at the top of the game, why did we have to listen to five tracks from some other guy before getting to the main event?
Wyclef Jean’s “My Swag,” the next song, features an electronic island beat with a bit of a Miami Vice vibe and the sound of jets taking off thrown in. It’s a rich track, but Wyclef’s verbal outbursts detract from T.I.’s verses. While T.I.P. gets to spar with Busta and Jay-Z, T.I. is stuck collaborating with Nelly (on “Show It to Me”) and Eminem (on “Touchdown”). Those tracks will receive far more attention than they deserve; “Show It to Me” is marred by horns that sound like a late-night talk-show house band and Nelly’s oh-so-2000 flow, while “Touchdown” is only a reminder that Eminem is no longer the rapper, nor the producer, that he once was.
T.I.P. and T.I. come together for the last few tracks of the album and do collectively what neither personality could achieve without the other. They dominate producer Danjahandz’s “Tell ’Em I Said That,” they project both thought and brawn on “Respect This Hustle,” and they get all introspective and pensive on “My Type,” which is not a track about what type of woman T.I. favors but rather hints at some of the drama the past year has brought him. Those three tracks go a long way toward neutralizing much of the dreck on T.I. Vs T.I.P., but they’re still only three tracks. It doesn’t matter that the split-personality gimmick enabled T.I. to release an album with twice the amount of material he usually releases—not when much of it is only half as good as it would be if he and his alter ego were working together.