You can tell a lot about a rapper’s health by the status of company they keep. On T.I.‘s first offering of 2012, which sits somewhere between a follow up to Fuck a Mixtape and a teaser for the forthcoming Trouble Man album, the top of the guest list reads like rap royalty: Young Jeezy, Pusha T, Just Blaze, B.o.B and even Dr. Dre — in both producer and rapper modes — roll through for the Atlanta dope-boy-turned-trap-star. But while parts of the 19-track project glisten with a regal charm, it also unravels as a divisive listen due to the presence of those lesser rappers that are little more than T.I.’s plus-ones. If you’re being unkind, Grand Hustle minions like Spodee and 2 Chainz should never have received their invite to this ceremonial ball.
“You suspect he just doesn’t care as much when he’s only spitting alongside his lowly stooges, as opposed to those artists who stand alone.”
The songs that comprise F*ck Da City Up may technically be ones deemed not good enough for Trouble Man, but when T.I.’s paired with superstars, he ups his execution and produces thrilling and enjoyable big-budget rap. The climax to the tape, the collaboration with Dre, “Popped Off,” is soulful and celebratory: Dre seems to have stumbled across a fleet-tongued ghost-writer, as he opens reminding listeners, “It’s been a while since you’ve heard these beats — you’re malnourished/ But he’s back now to flood these streets — he shall flourish.” (When the Doctor rhymes “vaginal” with “tragical” though it’s not quite as endearing.) Tip, in return, steps into a Snoop-like sidekick role and sounds giddy and motivated with it; he asserts how his “Swag unsurpassed, my style is so spazz/ I pop tags daily, drop Phantom 480,” then quips about girls asking him if he knows Slim Shady and Dre. There’s a pride that beams through in his performance.
This sparring at a high level carries the best moments of the mixtape. Most exhilaratingly, “I’ll Show You,” with Pusha T, showcases the two dope game spitters in a furious brag session. Each rapper opens his verse slowly, builds up momentum, and dips into double-time as needed; Tip references his spells incarcerated while Pusha throws a coy jab at those who “Say my brother [Malice] better” by deducing, “Second fiddle to my own gene-pool?/ We laugh about it, that’s cool/ If I’m at the top and he better/ If you think about it, we rule.” In full throttle, it’s the sound of rap kings in thrall with their discipline.
But this processional pomp is dulled by the presence of the peasant rappers of the project: Young Dro, Spodee and 2 Chainz in particular drag down the quality level. (All but two of the songs on the mixtape feature guest vocalists.) It’s not that these lesser profile artists are poor — it’s that T.I. exercises an economy of effort when teaming up with them. You suspect he just doesn’t care as much when he’s only spitting alongside his lowly stooges, as opposed to those artists who stand alone (and presumably inspire friendly but vital competition).
T.I. is far from the first rapper to extend a hand-out (often even a record deal) to those he either feels personal ties or debts to, or who bless him with the comfort of sycophancy. There’s a hideous history of rappers letting their hangers-on have access to the keys to the recording studio. But this mixing of stars and scrubs leaves F*ck Da City a curious listen: Instead of being a marker of superiority — a Watch the Throne move in terms of closing the doors to all but the A-list — it almost grounds Tip’s status. As a rapper he’s talented and well-connected enough to roll with only the peak of the rap world — now it’s time for him to close the door on the lower classes.
T.I.’s F*ck Da City Up mixtape is out now. Download it at Datpiff.com