A reminder of exactly why Atlanta ruled the 2000s.
T.I.’s King might be the best case for style over substance in hip-hop that’s been released in the last 15 years. He’s always been underrated as a technical rapper, able to work his drawl masterfully and vary his cadences to elevate a typical trap tale or boast to a level few of his peers could reach. While so much southern rap from the mid-2000s already feels dated, King endures on the strength of T.I.’s presence on the mic and robust production that has far more depth than we were accustomed to from mainstream rap of the era.
The rapper was already well-known thanks to his 2004 record Urban Legend and its hit single “Bring Em Out” (one of the few Swizz Beatz commercial productions that still holds up terrifically), but King cemented him as a truly ascendant superstar. It married the more radio-minded aspects of Urban Legend with the Atlanta pride of Trap Muzik his 2003 sophomore LP that brought him back from the brink of obscurity following a false start with Arista.
Looking at the collaborators T.I. had to work with both on the mic (UGK, Jamie Foxx, Young Jeezy, Common and Pharrell, not to mention his own P$C crew) and on the boards (Just Blaze, Swizz Beatz, Mannie Fresh, The Neptunes, DJ Toomp), it may seem like King is a superstar vehicle that’s too big to fail, but the reality is that it needed an MC of T.I.’s quality to live up to the potential.
Take “What You Know” the album’s gargantuan lead single that became the biggest hit of his career to that point. Powered by wave after wave of DJ Toomp synthesizers the beat is anthemic enough that it could swallow a lesser rapper alive, but T.I. knows exactly how to compliment it, opting for a rope-a-dope slow flow that allows the complexity of the instrumental to shine.
“Ride Wit’ Me” is sleeker and even more impressive. It’s both a highly provincial joyride through the Atlanta streets where T.I. was raised and a statement of purpose that the rapper is inviting the entire nation down to the bottom of the map. The track’s third verse, which consists almost exclusively of T.I. rapping the names of various cities and states, is better than entire albums from this era.
But perhaps the songs that hold up best are those where T.I. plays into his considerable charisma not to be charming but to be magnetically menacing. On tracks like “Top Back” and “King Back” he obliterates top shelf production from Mannie Fresh and Just Blaze, respectively, leaving quotables atop piles of smoldering rubble (“I welcome you and get acquainted with the youngest in charge / Respected from East to West like he was running the mob,” “And ready to pop the clip in, ready to get to tripping /Ready to show these folks a celebrity pistol whipping / Pimp stole the automobile and the roof for the tag missing / Polices’ try to pursue me it’s nothing but gas given”).
Released during the resurgence of some of southern rap’s early icons, there’s certainly homage being paid by T.I. to his forbears on records like “Front Back,” which featured one of Pimp C’s first verses after his release from prison, and the mellifluous “I’m Straight,” which includes a killer autobiographical verse from B.G. (who had a short stint as part of T.I.’s Grand Hustle label). Southern flair has always been a part of T.I.’s best work, and it’s never channeled more perfectly than on King.
While still a highly visible figure in rap – he just released the politically charged Us or Else: Letter to the System in December – King is T.I.’s opus, a big budget project from an MC capable of making the best production sound even better. Southern hip-hop still occupies a large market share of rap, but T.I.’s 2006 album is a reminder of exactly why Atlanta ruled the 2000s.