Album Review: T.I. – The L.I.B.R.A.

[Grand Hustle/Empire; 2020]

Let’s face it, T.I. cannot be stopped. The man behind the moniker is responsible for more than his fair share of cultural sins, having been chiefly responsible for unleashing Iggy Azalea’s whitewashed faux-Southerness on the world, to his more than creepy “joke” about his daughter. Rumors of being a federal informant, however likely untrue, continue to trail after him like a bad aftershave. Hell, the man’s career has survived not one, but two prison stints, both having come just around the apex of his popularity. Yet, while recent playful foe 50 Cent hasn’t managed to put out an album since 2014’s limp Animal Ambition, T.I. comes around with new LPs just about like clockwork. What’s more, they tend to actually be good. It defies all logic, especially within a genre so notorious for a fickle lack of willingness to support longevity.

You can forget all that noise, because here we are with the man called Tip’s 11th studio album, the ludicrously named The L.I.B.R.A., which stands for The Legend Is Back Running Atlanta. Yeah. Following up 2018’s shockingly strong return to form, Dime Trap, there’s quite a bit of weight on this one. Well, T.I. certainly didn’t shrink at the challenge, and he’s recruited more than a bit of help. The album boasts guest appearances from (inhales deeply), Griselda’s Conway the Machine and Benny the Butcher, Snoop Dogg, Young Thug, Rapsody, 21 Savage, Lil Baby, Mozzy, Jadakiss, Rick Ross, John Legend, longtime ally Killer Mike, and his own son, Domani. Among others. Phew.

Looking at the tracklist a few days ago, frankly, this writer smelled an over-stuffed charity case, but the fact that this thing works speaks volumes to T.I.’s gift as an organizer and craftsman. He’s clearly picked up a thing or two from Travis Scott, lest you forget Mr. McDonalds himself put out his earliest projects on T.I.’s Grand Hustle imprint. Somehow, some way, The L.I.B.R.A. never buckles under the weight of its many cooks – indeed, it even moves with grace. Each face pops in for their moment, comfortable guests in the Atlanta legend’s world, never over-staying their welcome, and the show remains defiantly T.I.’s own. It’s an astonishing victory.

If there’s anything working against The L.I.B.R.A., it’s simply its length. It could likely have done with some trimming, with its 20 tracks and 68 minutes gradually wearing a tad thin. Yet, there’s honestly next to nothing that comes to mind as worth cutting: you can’t say it doesn’t flow, with a cohesive sense of production doing wonders, especially in its first half, each track gliding perfectly into the next.

In a recent interview, T.I. mused on his ability to release music purely for pleasure, with his finances largely being fuelled by television and film. He’s released this project purely because he had enough songs he wanted to share. So, it feels natural that this lengthy release feels like varying mood music, moments culled from its creator’s life, gifted to fans for when they’re in the mood for them. It ranges from triumphant and combative to emotional and reflective.

There’s also ample chemistry on display. However close he may be with Tip’s lifelong foe Gucci Mane, for my money, there are few people that better bring out the best in Young Thug than T.I.. From their 2014 hit “About the Money” to every cut since, Thug and Tip simply make the perfect pair, and this album’s “Ring” is yet more evidence of this, boasting perhaps the best Thugger verse of the year. It’s also a genuine pleasure to hear Conway the Machine over production so far removed from the typical Griselda sound.

Some of its gloss and sheen doesn’t work, though. Eric Bellinger’s cloying hook on “How I Feel” somewhat dulls the urgency of powerful verses from T.I. and (especially) Killer Mike. Conversely, however, John Legend’s chorus on “We Did It Big” works perfectly, the track proving rousing and heartfelt, the rare hip hop RIP anthem that truly excels (it’s also grin-inducing to hear T.I. mention that Drake incident). T.I.’s link up with his son is another strong emotive moment, somewhat reminiscent of his 2007 album T.I. vs. T.I.P., albeit with the rapper talking to his progeny rather than himself, the two debating self-reliance and familial loyalty back and forth. It also features his daughter (yes, indeed, that very same daughter) on its reflective outro. He even opts to employ 21 Savage for the soulful “Thank God” rather than the more sinister collaboration one might have envisioned for the two, bringing out the younger rapper’s emotional side, frankly, far more successfully than Metro Boomin did on Savage Mode II.

All in all, The L.I.B.R.A. feels like the sort of album an icon makes simply because they can. Hardly bothering with singles, doing even less for promotion, the sudden announcement and release of the album feels far less like shock-and-awe and far more akin to an open gesture. This an LP clearly intended just for the sort of folk who are still clamoring for a T.I. album, and for those checking in to see if he’s still got it. This intention frees it of all other expectations, and its creator seems genuinely at peace with however it’s received, so long as he’s able to continue releasing the music he loves, and working with peers at the top level. Whatever you think of the man’s personal life, this is a generous, compulsively enjoyable statement, unburdened of commercial pressure in a way that’s all too rare in this numbers game.