T.I.'s crowning achievement, "King," turns ten today. Let's look back.
Back in December, I wrote about an album that really threw open the floodgates for Southern rap. If OutKast made people take the region more seriously, Lil Wayne’s “Best rapper alive” proclamation on Tha Carter II showed us that it could be home to GOATs and kings. It only took a remarkably short three months for another Southern album to arrive with that swagger already ingrained in its DNA. A sprawling collage of heavy-as-hell dope boy anthems, mass-appeal bangers, slow jams, and anointments from past regional legends, rising local stars, and out-of-town talent, T.I.’s King took Wayne’s blueprint and built a palace.
Introduced by Just Blaze’s best “extra in Braveheart” voice, T.I.'s fourth album was by far his most ambitious, and to this day it stands as his best. You really can't underestimate how important his first three were in laying the foundation for modern trap music (hell, the second one was called Trap Muzik), but at around 70 minutes apiece, none were without peaks, valleys, and filler material. King is 75 minutes and eighteen tracks, and all of it feels essential. As T.I. himself said in an interview a month before its release, "King is like Trap Muzik on steroids." The mythological start of "King Back" (for my money, one of the greatest intro tracks of all time) is definitely the album's most traditionally grandiose moment, but segueing into some stately blaxploitation funk, and then into a hauntingly minimal modern stomp, the track's first minute is a microcosm of grandeur that's indicative of the album as a whole. Somehow, the album manages to veer back and forth between Organized Noize's live funk, New Orleans' bounce music, Jermaine Dupri's music box pop rap, and the clamor of Just Blaze and Swizz Beatz's Northeast sounds without breaking a sweat. No matter what sound he went for, T.I. owned it and made it seem positively kingly-- even if it sounded like a chaotic stampede, like it did on "I'm Talkin To You," it was a stampede of royal elephants.
Of course, nothing has ever sounded more like a trap throneroom procession march than "What You Know," the DJ Toomp masterpiece that seems as readymade for stadiums as any of those anthemic techno songs you hear UK soccer fans chanting, but far less obnoxious. The pristine beat is definitely what I was first attracted to, but T.I.'s economic delivery and hook writing is what keeps this song and others living in your mind long after the last note dies out. In this sense, he paved the way for the less wordy future masters of ATL, Gucci Mane and Jeezy (the latter of whom is featured on King's "I'm Straight"), and made it cooler to sound like you couldn't give a fuck than to try to pack as many complex words as possible into your bars. Some old heads were appalled when Tip began his creative partnership with Young Thug, but he's just as influential to the young ATLien's sound and rapping style as Andre 3000 and Fabo.
Almost nobody, not even the biggest T.I. stans, would claim that he was rapping as well as Wayne at the time of King's release, but even so, it's cut from the same cloth as Carter II and stands toe-to-toe with it in terms of quality. Both are cinematic-sounding in ways that were at the time unprecedented for Southern street rap; both run well over an hour; both bring you into the extremely well-defined world of artists who, though young, were already veterans. One was the sound and spirit incarnate of Hollygrove, the other of Bankhead. In a landmark display of Southern solidarity, those two neighborhoods joined forces with Port Arthur, Texas on King's second track, "Front Back," a Mannie Fresh-produced, UGK-featuring track that's better than any third generation interpolation of "Boyz N The Hood" has a right to be. This Avengers-style round up of dominant figures from every important region in the South save for Miami and Memphis lent further cred and recognition to T.I.'s rapidly-rising career, as he'd gained the respect from those not only in his city, but across rival scenes. After "I'm Straight" (another cross-regional cut featuring New Orleans' B.G., for the record) fades out, Pimp C gives an interlude that gets to the heart of the album's whole statement, one Underground King explaining why those who disputed T.I.'s self-appointed "King of the South" title-- namely Lil Flip and Ludacris at the time-- were shooting themselves in the foot:
"T.I. jumped out there
Said he was the King of the South
He ruffled a whole lotta n*ggas' feathers
But n*ggas didn't really understand what the n*gga was talking 'bout
Everybody had it twisted
But me, I understood from the get-go
That what the n*gga was tryin' to put
In these motherfuckin' stupid ass n*ggas' faces
Was the fact that it's a whole bunch of kings down here
And as long as you takin' care of yo' business and doin' king shit you a king!"
And that's exactly the image T.I. presented throughout this album. His lyrics weren't as workmanlike and tied to the streets as those on I'm Serious, but they weren't outrageously boastful either. "Ride Wit Me" in particular is an antidote to Ludacris and Jermaine Dupri's exaggerated, unrealistic "Welcome To Atlanta," an honest portrait of a city where the player's don't play, they "put holes in ya til your clothes leak" and then throw you in the river. T.I. made exceptional music for normal people to party to, ride to, smoke to, and hustle to, from the now-clichéd perspective of the drug kingpin, but wielding it with the authority others lacked.
The commercially successful, weirdly conceptual T.I. vs. T.I.P. would arrive a year later, and the crossover giant Paper Trail a year after that, which is astonishing not only because T.I. had wildly varied hits like "What You Know," "Big Shit Poppin," "Live Your Life," and "Whatever You Like" pop off in a three year timespan, but also because all three albums are above-average. He was nearly as prolific as Weezy in his prime, but no one ever seems to remember that. As the dust has settled on T.I.'s legacy though (even though he seems to still come out of left field with an EP's worht of dope tracks every year), King is the definite classic. It stays in its thematic and commercial lane while exploring plenty of different sounds, expanding on T.I.'s past albums while not spreading his by-the-book rapping style too thin, calling upon just enough out-of-towners to broaden his scope but not enough to water him down. Its artwork, showing Tip cloaked in shadows, rocking his hat with that iconic, gravity-defying tilt, is the picture that's still burned in my mind when I hear his voice. Like Wayne's "Best Rapper Alive" claim, T.I.'s "King of the South" title was expertly wielded-- he didn't start using it too early in his career, and he relinquished it when he felt it fading. That blend of self-awareness and confidence is something sorely lacking in the rest of hip hop.