he young always wait for a power vacuum. The old in hip-hop either die and become polemics or stay alive and fade into obscurity. Rakim runs into quiet trouble with the law and barely registers on the radar, while Big L’s rhyme book haunts like Apocrypha. The elderly envy the dead.
Almost all the Southern heroes are still alive—8Ball & MJG, OutKast, UGK—but the South’s young aren’t as fascinated with the dead artists of yore. Young rappers from California and New York are expected to keep mentioning ‘Pac and Biggie as they struggle through their verses. The young southern stars of today don’t have that melodramatic, self-aggrandizing burden. The book of the South is still unwritten. The constellations are unformed. The most important people for them to shout-out are themselves.
T.I.’s path to a self-made mythology hinges not just on his ability to trumpet himself, but to make his locale and history vital. King, T.I.’s latest, proves, among other things, that his legacy is tied into his town, and his town, Atlanta, is the true Southern metropolis: primal, spiritual, refined, and delicate at the same time. New Orleans may have the painful religious symbolism, Memphis the working-class spirit, and Houston the expansive, halting sound, but Atlanta is the melting pot of bourgeoisie, aristocracy, and neighborhood hustlers. Lil’ Wayne may be the chaperone of this coast, but T.I. is the CFO.
The album cover tells the story: like Momma Said Knock You Out and The Black Album the protagonist’s profile (or physique in the former) stands out in white against the pitch black field. However where LL only flashed his chest and jaw line, and where Shawn Carter stared dead on with his fitted obscuring his eyes, T.I. smirk/scowls at a 45 degree angle, hat clinging to his scalp like a magnet. T.I. clearly is okay with inherited artistic systems, but instead of trying to NYC his ATL, King tries to make the NYC a little more ATL.
Song to song production is generally top-shelf. From barn-burning “Top Back” to the slyly tender “Gone,” every chime chimes when it’s supposed to, every snare clacks right into place. Individually, Grand Hustle in-house rising star Toomp gobbles up the lion’s share of the praise: the cataclysmic “What You Know” and ostentatious “Bankhead” both soar. Mannie Fresh and Just Blaze inlay T.I.’s lines with velveteen strings and swirling drums respectively.
The first four songs of King work as a set: Album opening “King Back” establishes the regiculture and personal myth over an unexpected Impressions sample. He outlines the setting on his epic: “You ain't ready for out here 'cause the lifestyle violent / You think you is, you must be living on Fantasy Island / Your mammy’s mad, get your ass wiped out like Thailand.” T.I. is now playing with forces of natural disaster; clearly this is someone different than Rubber Band Man.
Next he pays homage to UGK, the twin oracles of South Texas, on the stretched out hydraulic squeaks of “Front Back” (courtesy of Mannie Fresh, who chips in some of his best post-Cash Money arrangements on King). He spends an entire 16 bars endlessly praising a candy painted car while ushering Pimp C back to the spotlight. You’ve got to be a fool at this point not to see T.I. straining for anointment.
The album’s third song, “What You Know,” a speaker filling orchestra of leviathan synths and an organic, effortless cool, becomes the irresistible lead single. The hook, the name-drops and the hustler’s taunts all blur together: “Ay, don't you know I got a key by the threeeee / When I chirp, shorty chirp baaaack / Louie nap sack where I'm holding all the work aaaat…”
Finally, gold-medal single in hand, T.I. moves to the inevitable on “I’m Talking to You.” He disposes of his usurpers by simply naming all the people he’s cool with—“I ain't talkin to Jeezy ‘cause that’s my brother / Ain't talkin’ to ‘Face cause that's my father / Ain't talkin to Bun’ cause that's my uncle”—and begging anyone not on the list to emit a peep. By the end of the song his flow is unraveling, taunts overwhelming line breaks and his normally shock-proof river of snarls, boasts, and young lion force is circling around itself in gall. What separates T.I.’s taunts from those of a mere bully (Mr.Cent), is the restraint T.I. employs. He could just jump in, slander Lil’ Flip and Ludacris for five minutes and call it a day. But instead he simply omits his targets from the song; T.I.’s enemies have got to listen to “I’m Talking to You” and patiently see if they it make onto T.I.’s roster of allies. If they don’t, well, they can stew in their anonymity. T.I. has already moved on.
In these four songs T.I. has covered almost all his bases: legend, past, present and haters. Sequentially the album breaks down a bit here and never regains its early theatrical punch, but T.I. does an effective job of covering the tropes of the solo manifesto (argue, argue, argue) so that the album simply sounds like it’s just now loosening up.
Buried further within King are haunted seduction anthems, still shocking threats and syrupy taunts begging for highway listening. “Why You Wanna,” where T.I. lifts the most artisan of hooks (one taken from A Tribe Called Quest), and slaps a Bankhead rude boy preface on: “Go and tell a nigga ‘no’ / With an ass so fat? / Why you wanna go / And do that love, huh?” Not burdened by his languid, versatile flow or dual role as cocky young lion and gutter sparkplug, “You Know Who” is the most effective aping of “99 Problems” to date.
Even on the tracks with mediocre melodies and concepts, T.I. plugs away at the beat and never loses control of King. “Stand Up Guy” has a kitschy, impossible to decipher chorus, but T.I. gives each verse a different tempo and meter as he nails worn-in pick-up lines. “Undertaker” could knock itself unconscious with its own seriousness until T.I. starts out with easy, recreational violence, “Ridin’ clean after midnight / Ready for the gun, but prepared for a fist fight.” Even under the song’s deep organ, T.I. makes himself the centerpiece with his charm, practical gangster sensibilities, and frightening ambition. King isn’t complacent enough to act like all the wars are fought and all the gods are dead; T.I. sees his legacy and city very much up for grabs. A city, a scene and his legacy are unfinished, and while King won’t be T.I.’s last, or, hopefully, best section of his mosaic, it’s the perfection of his aesthetic thus far.
“Bankhead,” the album closer, picks up the orchestral ambitions of the disc’s opener, but turns them inward, back to T.I.’s home and history (the titular neighborhood and P$C both figure heavy) and makes the hook a post-epic yearning:
“I got my 44 / And my ‘dro and my Chevy on 24’s … now where I’m supposed to go?”