T.I._-_Paperwork[xrr rating=3.0/5]It is no mistake that, midway through Paperwork, T.I., surrounded by beautiful women, is schmoozing in Hollywood. He explained in an interview that he conceived his new album in terms of a film: “[It’s] gonna be a motion picture, it’s gonna be a theatrical-worthy title…” Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed good kid, m.A.A.d. city featured the subtitle, “a short film,” and the resurgence of “cinematic” rap albums began at least seven years ago with American Gangster. It’s clear that good rap equals good storytelling, and rappers hoping to be taken seriously increasingly structure their work as an analogue to cinema.

Paperwork is indeed like a feature film. The deluxe album is nearly 75 minutes long, and the credits list close to a hundred contributors. But the narrative is difficult to follow. There are hints of a thematic sequence: act one is overtly political, featuring “New National Anthem” and “Oh Yeah.” The first of these expresses indignation at police brutality, while the second is a defense of the hustler’s ethic; ultimately, they represent opposing views on the question of gun control. The second act is smaller in scope and, taking up familiar questions of consent and fidelity, is set somewhere between the bedroom and the altar. “Private Show,” and “At Ya’ Own Risk” are respectively smoldering and leering, and cast Chris Brown and Usher effectively against type. “Stay,” the midpoint between these, pays lips service to fidelity and holy matrimony. The major strokes of the third act trace loss and penitence: “Light Em Up” describes the thin line between friendship and rivalry, and on “Let Your Heart Go,” T.I. regrets the death of a close friend.

While you can trace general lines like these, it would be a struggle to put a finger on exactly what Paperwork is about. It is reasonable to ask whether having a “message” is a prerequisite for such a work, and in this case, it is reasonable to ask what the substance of a comparison to cinema. If the basic idea is that the album should have coherence greater than the sum of its parts, then there are grounds to ask about its “message.”

If there is a guiding vision to Paperwork, it is compromised by concessions to radio. The album is front loaded with singles “About the Money,” “New National Anthem” and “No Mediocre.” But it is also crammed with guests: of the eighteen total, there is scarcely a single unassisted track. To be fair, most guests contribute choruses that do not out-rap their leader, and there’s no reason feature acts have to be suffocating (Kanye West demonstrated this with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). But to pull off such a party successfully requires not only an oversized personality, but the kind of social deviance which would attract guests in the first place. This is the same kind of deviance that makes a “cinematic” album successful. You need an idiosyncratic POV to pull off an album of this scope.

While his microphone skills are undeniable (see the high velocity performance of “King”), and his swagger formidable, it is not clear that T.I. can sustain a 75 minute album. It would be easy to suggest that Paperwork would be better if it were shorter. But T.I. does not seem to know what his story is. This is not to argue that story is the best and only route for “serious rappers.” But if he is intent on making a cinematic album, he would do well to write the script before dressing the stage.

T.I. may have simply run out of things to say, a chasm that no technical ability can breach. Unfortunately, this does seem to square with the tenor of recent interviews, in which he describes his vision of “an instant classic” and seems to know all the particulars of the financing, but none concerning theme or plot. It is worth asking about the relationship between “classic status” in rap and perceived similarities to film. If the quality of current rap is measured in terms of an increasing equivalence to cinema, this is a sorry state of affairs, as lyric writing, under the cinematic approach, is all too frequently a matter of paperwork.

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