On 2018’s “Ye vs. the People,” T.I. gave Kanye West an earful about publicly supporting Donald Trump. He played devil’s advocate to West’s MAGA-hat musings, and in the process, found a way to bring his characteristically thoughtful, loud, and direct public commentary to music. T.I. dropped his tenth album, Dime Trap, soon after, picking up where “Ye vs. the People” left off with a loving sendoff to the trap music subgenre he’d ushered into existence 15 years earlier. Dime Trap positioned T.I. as a veteran on the cusp of a major career turn—ready to tackle the tensions that his politics bring to his music. Two years later, T.I.’s eleventh studio album The L.I.B.R.A. (The Legend Is Back Running Atlanta) represents the first taste of what promised to be a new era. But though it arrives during the world’s worst modern pandemic and widespread social unrest (topics that T.I. has engaged publicly), it has nearly nothing to say about the moment at hand. The L.I.B.R.A. is more concerned with sprinting alongside Atlanta’s new generation than with cementing his legacy or exploring his politics.
In 2020, T.I. has seemingly tried harder than ever to become the spokesperson of Black America. The L.I.B.R.A. looks past this, leaving his passionate speeches on the internet. Opening track “The L.I.B.R.A. Introduction” sets the tone with a mythologization of the rapper’s story, courtesy of comedian Ms. Pat. “Do you know how hard it is to have to flip the script and odds into your favor?” she asks, calling the rapper the “baddest motherfucker in Atlanta” and noting that, 20 years in, he still doesn’t have any grey hair in his beard. That seemingly meaningless observation sticks in your brain as The L.I.B.R.A. goes on, a reminder of what the album is really focused on: proving that T.I. is just as capable of being rap’s “it” guy as anyone half his age.
Plenty of rappers pine for the attention of younger generations, but it’s especially grating given T.I.’s propensity to speak about topics that actually define our times. “Pardon,” with its use-once-and-toss instrumental, is primarily a means of attempting to rap like guest star Lil Baby. “Hit Dogs Holla,” an ominous, bass-knocking brag fest featuring Florida rapper and Grand Hustle signee Tokyo Jetz, is the kind of high-energy missile that any current Atlanta rapper would sound at home over. These songs introduce nothing new to T.I.’s story or sound, but they’re exactly what you’d expect to find 13 tracks deep into a curated rap playlist on a streaming service.
L.I.B.R.A. leaves the heavy thematic lifting to interludes featuring Black women, but even those are a mixed bag because half of them are focused on T.I. Ms. Pat’s adoring opening is nearly identical to Rapsody’s “Air & Water Interlude,” a wasted opportunity for one of hip-hop’s most talented women, who uses her wondrous poetic dexterity to explain that “Without T.I.P., the world might tip.” By the time a message of substance arrives, the album’s already halfway complete. On “Fire & Earth Interlude,” actress Ernestine Johnson Morrison delivers a poignant spoken-word piece about the Black community. But, weirdly, it features a hypocritical moment where Johnson says, “I dare you to rap about anything but your pussy/Or how good you suck his—/How good you look and how tight your Fashion Nova fit/I remember when rap queens really used to spit.” You want to cringe at the audacity, then roll your eyes when you realize that nearly the entire album up until that point is about how good T.I. looks and acts.
The most memorable moments on L.I.B.R.A. come when T.I. introduces the real young people he keeps up with: his children. On standout “Family Connect,” T.I. brings in his son Domani Harris to express how it feels to live in his father’s shadow. Domani handles the topic with dexterity: “I’m most definitely my daddy’s son, it’s no denyin’/I used to run from my last name/I was mortified of being that nigga that live off a nigga at 25.” T.I. feigns curiosity in his response, but you can tell he’s a little hurt. “Ridin’ round in a Vanquish, tryna stop for complainants/’Cause my kids won’t let me help ’em and I just can’t ascertain it,” he says. The closer, which features T.I.’s daughter Deyjah Harris speaking about her Black experience, doesn’t make up for the album’s lack of a political voice, but it offers a bit of soul—something there should have been more of altogether.
For the duration of his career, T.I. has been obsessed with respect, to the point of proclaiming that he would die to have it put on his name. With that in mind, The L.I.B.R.A. looks like death by a thousand cuts—an album so obsessed with claiming respect, and with fitting in, that it doesn’t truly need to exist. In searching for the respect that he’s already earned over the course of his career, T.I. suddenly appears to occupy a position where people might fail to acknowledge it at all.
Catch up every Saturday with 10 of our best-reviewed albums of the week. Sign up for the 10 to Hear newsletter here.