In Rap, Inner War Can Be a Trap

Kalefa Sanneh reviews T. I. vs. T. I. P.:

T. I. is one of the last rap stars standing, a dominant figure at a time when record sales are falling fast and hip-hop sales are falling faster. (Last year no hip-hop album, not even “King,” was among the 10 top-selling CDs.) And like just about every popular rapper since the 1980s, he is both a sign of the times and an anomaly. He is part of a wave of beat-savvy Southern rappers (many based in Atlanta) who have reimagined the genre over the last decade. But he’s also an old-fashioned lyricist, obsessed with verbal density; Pharrell famously said, “He’s like the down-South Jay-Z.”

You might even say that T. I. has triumphed by turning Jay-Z’s style inside out. Jay-Z knew how to hide sound in sense. His lyrics often sounded like plainspoken prose; it was only later that you noticed the hidden rhyme patterns and rhythms. By contrast, T. I. hides sense in sound. His lyrics often sound like singsong chants; it’s only later that you notice the hidden intricacy of the words.