T.I.’s last major release, T.I. vs. T.I.P., was akin to a story about a hero without obstacles- though the protagonist (and in T.I.’s case, two lead characters) were interesting enough on their own, a sense of complacency on the writer’s part put a serious hamper on the well-produced proceedings. This time around, T.I. has simplified the writing process to a pen and a pad, and there is no shortage of drama for Tip to sort through. Juggling emotions and reflections on everything from his impending prison sentence (”Ready for Whatever) to the deaths of his daughter and close-friend (”You Ain’t Missin’ Nothin’), Paper Trail is T.I.’s most lyrically-engaging album to date.
At the heart of the album is what is arguably the most well-crafted song in T.I.’s impressive career, “No Matter What.” Danja’s majestic production, comprising of squeaky synths, marching-band drums, and an organ backdrop, is the perfect complement to T.I.’s lyrical exercise (”Avoid insanity, manage to conquer, every obstacle, make impossible possible// even when winning’s illogical, losing’s still far from optional.”) But even amongst the introspection, T.I.’s brash confidence hasn’t lost a step, as he takes aim at an obvious ATL target with lines like, “It’s very plain to see you study me awful hard, to the point that my swag needs a bodyguard.” The unnamed D4L- member gets subliminally assaulted yet again on the captivating anthem “What Up, What’s Haapnin’,” where T.I. conjures up an instantly infectious chorus on the triumphantly-produced joint (courtesy of Drumma Boy).
Despite featuring a myriad of star guest appearances, Paper Trail keeps the focus on T.I., thanks largely in part to the star’s standout rhymes. When lined up with fellow heavyweight’s Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne on the frantic “Swagger Like Us”, T.I. runs away with the song’s best verse, dropping cleverly relevant lines such as, “Verse is autobiographical, absolutely classical, last thing I’m worried ’bout is what another rapper do.” The other big collab’s are more of a mixed bag- the Just Blaze-produced “Live Your Life” seamlessly weaves T.I.’s nonchalant lyrics with Rihanna’s stadium-worthy vocals, the Usher-assisted “My Life, Your Entertainment” fizzles due to a mediocre chorus and concept, and Ludacris overcomes B.O.B.’s cheesy chorus to deliver a noteworthy verse on “On Top of the World.”
Paper Trail provides highlights throughout the LP, from the boastful intro the dramatic closer, “Dead and Gone,” and with better editing (namely the cutting of “Porn Star” and the aforementioned “My Life,”) the album would stand toe-to-toe with T.I.’s best work. Still, Paper Trail is a solid offering from a seasoned vet displaying a new-found sense of maturity and a renewed sense of hunger. In T.I.’s case, the pen is indeed mightier than…machine guns?