T.I., Paper Trail
* * * ½ (out of four) FORTHRIGHT DECLARATION
T.I. may be staring at a year in prison, but he's not letting that curb his swagger. The Atlanta rapper's new album, "Paper Trail," finds him chastened but unbowed after pleading guilty this spring to federal weapons charges.
Rather than use this opportunity to bemoan his fate, he owns up to his mistakes, takes haters to task and declares the ordeal will make him stronger. He does it with his usual lyrical flair, which already has helped him score three hit singles in the run-up to today's release.
He takes a defiant stand on "No Matter What," turns on the charm on "Whatever You Like" and is at ease with fellow heavyweights Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and Kanye West on "Swagga Like Us."
Longtime rival Ludacris joins him "On Top of the World," burying the hatchet and reminiscing about their respective scrabbles out of poverty.
T.I., 28, has more big names up and down his sixth album — Justin Timberlake, Usher, Rihanna, John Legend — but wisely stays focused on the recent events of his life, stumbles and all.
The rapper, aka Clifford Harris, was on a hot streak in 2007, selling millions of albums, enjoying a fistful of endorsements, watching his businesses expand and his movie career grow. Then he was arrested last October by federal agents while buying unregistered machine guns.
Corporate sponsors backed off, and fan reaction to the news ranged from annoyance to disbelief. On "Ready for Whatever," T.I. details exactly what he was thinking: "I broke the law, but not maliciously." He concedes he has insecurities, despite "$500,000 every year spent on security." (His best friend and personal assistant was shot to death in 2006 as the two left a party.)
While awaiting trial, T.I. spent seven months under house arrest and used the time to record some of the most reflective songs of his career. "On My Life Your Entertainment" and "Slide Show," he acknowledges that having your troubles play out in public is part of the price of fame.
"Dead and Gone" deals with his realization that being a knucklehead and being a responsible family/businessman are mutually exclusive.
The album isn't without flaws, but they're minor. There's a lull midway through with a couple of pedestrian tracks, but Paper Trail starts and finishes strong. T.I. may be going away for a while, but his music won't.
Download: All of the above, plus "Live Your Life," "You Ain't Missing Nothing"
Skip: "Porn Star," "Swing Ya Rag"