T.I., “Paper Trail” (Grand Hustle/Atlantic) [2.5 STARS]

SHARE T.I., “Paper Trail” (Grand Hustle/Atlantic) [2.5 STARS]

On his last album, “T.I. vs. T.I.P.” (2007), self-proclaimed “King of the South” Clifford Harris Jr. wasted a promising concept–the battle between the two sides of his personality, calculating businessman T.I. and tough-talking street thug T.I.P.–with an uninspired production and rhymes that never dug deep enough into this internal conflict, which is one he shares with a lot of hip-hop chart-toppers. Since then, the thug has prevailed: Feeling paranoid after the May 2006 shooting death of his friend and personal assistant, Harris, who already had one conviction for a crack charge in the late ’90s, was caught in a sting when he bought several unregistered machine guns and silencers from a federal informant in the parking lot of a Walgreens last October, four hours before he was to be honored at the BET Awards.

“My life, your entertainment/You watch it while I live it,” guest crooner Usher sings in one chorus on T.I.’s sixth album “Paper Trail,” which was crafted while the rapper was under house arrest and preparing to serve a year in prison. That’s no idle boast: Before heading off to jail next spring, T.I. has to serve 1,000 hours of community service, and according to Variety, he’s struck a deal for an MTV reality show chronicling those efforts.

Given such cynical machinations, it’s hard to accept T.I.’s numerous declarations of penitence or his claim in “On Top of the World” that, “No way should reflection be mistaken for glorification”; it’s more like the looming jail time is just another facet of the disc’s marketing campaign. Yet while the rapper has little of worth to say aside from beyond-hoary boasts about his bad-ass ways, his wealth and his way with women–with the surprisingly appealing romantic of “Whatever You Like” more than offset by the sexist blather of “Porn Star”–he says it with more urgent energy and nimble skill than ever. He also pays much more attention to delivering the melodic and rhythmic goods on standout tracks such as “Live Your Life,” featuring Rihanna in the role of the robotic choirgirl, “Swagga Like Us,” which boasts multi-platinum cameos by Jay-Z, Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne in addition to a sample from M.I.A., and the John Legend soul ballad “Slide Show.”

The high points are strong enough to indicate that T.I. has only begun to strut his stuff–and to hold out hope that he’ll emerge from prison with more complex subject matter worthy of talents that have so far been wasted on tired superficialities.

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