Wednesday, April 13, 2016

"King" Revisited: T.I.'s Soundtrack to my High School Parking Lot Ten Years Later

I fell in love with rap music when I was 11 years old. My fascination with the genre and its accompanying culture began over the course of several Sunday afternoons at the Georgia Dome in the fall of 2001. My father has been an Atlanta Falcons season ticket holder for almost 30 years, and at that time, all five of the Tippens, including myself, were attending every home game. When the Dirty Birds would gain a first down on the ground, the PA DJ would spin the hook of Ludacris' wildly popular "Move, B***h," and I found the brash, symphonic, crashing instrumentation on the chorus ridiculously exciting. It fit those moments in the game so perfectly. Fast forward to 2002 which was T.J. Duckett's rookie year, and when the bruising back would Madden-style truck stick through an opposing linebacker, Luda's banger was the perfect tone-setter following the play. It's worth noting that I was 12 years old and the obvious misogyny of the hook was lost on me (not to mention the fact that it was the radio edit coming through the PA system). All I knew was that a raucous voice was cranking throughout the dome, with that intoxicating production behind it, proclaiming "MOVE, GET OUT DA WAY, GET OUT DA WAY, GET OUT DA WAY, MOOOOOVE!" to our opponent. What kid wouldn't get fired up by that?
T.J. Duckett

It wasn't long before I had asked my parents to buy me my first rap album: Ludacris' "Word of Mouf," featuring of course, "Move, B***h." This led to a legendary phone conversation between my mom and a salesman from, I want to say, Media Play (A CD chain no longer in business) during which the representative on the other end of the line said, "Yes I have confirmed your purchase of Word of Moof." I'm just proud that it wasn't my mom incorrectly pronouncing the phonetically spelled album title. I was a hilariously conscientious kid, and when my parents initially mistakenly purchased me the explicit version of the album, I quickly pointed out their mistake and asked for the edited version. I wanted to be able to bump "Move, B***h" loud and proud wherever I went, plus as an 12 year old, I really didn't need to be hearing the words "MOVE, B***H!" over and over anyway. Besides, to me the song was about football, and I loved that.

At that time I didn't fully grasp the connection between my home city and that song, nor was I aware of the larger Atlanta music culture surrounding it. I knew that some of the images in the album booklet for Word of Mouf looked familiar, but didn't connect the dots beyond that. In fact, it really wasn't until high school that I began to develop an awareness of Atlanta's position at the center of rap music. (Remember, this is the early 2000's. Atlanta was THE center of rap music during that time). That hometown connection only fueled the fire of my obsession with the music, one that has continued to this day. In some ways, it has come full circle, with Atlanta again in many ways shaping the broader rap landscape through innovators like Future, Young Thug, Migos, and Gucci Mane (from prison nonetheless), among several others. In fact, Future's recent "DS2" has been about as influential on my musical psyche as anything has been in the past decade. But back to the past.

As the early 2000's shifted into the mid 2000's, my love affair with Atlanta's rap music reached a crescendo because of two artists. T.I. and Young Jeezy. If you are a millenial and lived in the Atlanta area between 2004 and 2008, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Over an 8 month span between July 2005 and March 2006, T.I. and Young Jeezy released two of the most iconic southern rap albums ever made: "King" and "Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101." I don't know if I can properly express how influential those two albums were on my human musical experience. The only way I know how to even begin to capture their essence is to once again, ten years later, go through each of them song by song and record an oral history of my experience with them. So, in this post I'm going to go through "King" track-by-track, and shortly hereafter I will go through "Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101." Without further ado, let's get it!

1. King Back
"And the prophecy read
that one day like the phoenix arose from the ashes
That a boy would be born unto a family in the slums
This boy would go on to use the knowledge he gained
While fighting for survival in the streets
To become a great leader
And in time that boy would grow to become King!!!!!!"

Just Blaze, who produced the track, sets the stage for the whole album with this monumental opening monologue. It is immediately followed by T.I's well-timed opening lyrical sequence:

 "I welcome you to get acquainted with the youngest in charge
respected from east to west like he was running the Mob
Dictating ain't taking orders from no one but God"

This track was never really bumped as frequently among my friends as the hits from the album, but it is such a great opener. Tip speaks casually after each chorus, referencing his previous albums, proclaiming his status as a legitimate presence in the rap game, and dismissing any possible misunderstanding that this is his first go-round.

To this day, when I am playing four-square and make it to the king square, I start reciting the hook of this song: "The King baaaaack!"

UGK - Pimp C & Bun B
2. Front Back (Feat. UGK)
The primary purpose of this song was for T.I. to fulfill his lifelong dream of collaborating with his musical idols, Pimp C and Bun B. It's got smooth production and a laid back, very UGK-vibe. For me, this track was always just a tasty precursor to the absolute masterpiece that awaited in the form of the song immediately following it...

3. What You Know
Where do I begin? I can only remember a handful of times in my life where I heard something sound as drastically different, inspiring, and exquisite as the first chords of this song sounded to me when I heard it for the first time at 16 years of age. DJ Toomp has always been my favorite producer of T.I.'s, and in my opinion this is his masterpiece. This song hit radio during the era of Crunk and Snap Music. Production had been so heavily directly towards creating upbeat, danceable club bangers for so long that when this song dropped it sounded like it had been delivered from another planet. It combined a slow tempo, buzzing synths, and ethereal strings with slappy snares, ticking hi-hats, and a steady, thumping kick and 808 drum to produce a warm, anthemic piece of southern music. At the time I didn't know rap could sound like this. I was absolutely mesmerized by this song.

In one of my favorite YouTube videos ever, Toomp talks about producing What You Know for T.I. to be the first single off of "King." The best quote from Toomp during the video comes when he tells the story of approaching T.I. with the track for the first time:

T.I. with DJ Toomp
"I took the track to the studio...sat with Tip because you know, there were a few producers who thought they were going to have the first single. I had a little cockiness, a slight arrogance when I played that track. I'm like, 'Hey man, if you're ready to go to the next level, this track I'm about to play will take you there. If you do the right thing to it, it's going down.' So I just looked at everybody and mashed play."

Never have truer words been spoken. What You Know was released as the first single for "King," as well as a promotional track for T.I.'s debut film, "The ATL," (secretly one of my favorite movies even though it's objectively average) and became a massive hit.

T.I. didn't have to do much to the track to make is a smash, but he pushed it to legendary status with his deep, slow, bellowing approach to the hook, and really the entire song:

"What you know I got a key by the three when I chirp shawty chirp back
Louis knapsack where I'm holding all the work at
What you know about that, What you know about that, What you know about that
I know all about that"

"I'm throwed off slightly bruh
Don't want to fight me bruh
I'm fast as lightning bruh
you better use your Nikes bruh."

I remember the first time I heard it...I didn't even know who the artist was because Tip sounded so different. His voice was so much slower and deeper. All I knew was that it sounded incredible. I still absolutely bump this track to this day. It holds up and then some.

4. I'm Talkin' to You
Probably the most technically impressive song on the album, this track features a third verse delivery that is absolutely ridiculous. It's a diss song aimed at no one in particular (Though maybe Lil' Flip?), however it certainly makes clear who it's NOT aimed at. Another Just Blaze production, this beat sounds like an urgent, breaking news update combined with a horror film combined with a jazz concert. I've spent years trying to recite the aforementioned final verse, and I simply cannot keep up with the King of the South on this one.

"You dealing with a little gorilla n***a
10 million later I'm still the n***a
Killer Mike, Youngbloodz, David Banner
Bonecrusher they remember when y'all ain't feel a n***a
Had it out with Chris but he still my n***a
Sat down, civilized, talked about it like n***as

So I ain't never been served get your facts right n***a
Fore this 40 cal make your ass act right n***a
You coming against the king get your stats right n***a
Wanna talk about a n***a, wanna be a hot n***a
Gonna be a shot n***, yeah I said it, what n***a, buck n***a
Like Lil Jon I don't give a f***!"

You have to listen to the song to understand how technically impressive this section really is. T.I. has never really been considered a "lyrical" rapper (a stupid, misunderstood distinction often used by rap fans to classify rappers) but I have always felt that he was underrated as a lyricist at times.

5. Live in the Sky (Feat. Jamie Foxx)
A smooth, introspective ode to Tip's dead friends and family members, as well as a coming of age story, this track fits well in the sequencing of the album, as it allows the listener to rest a bit after the blunt head trauma that they experienced throughout the duration of "I'm Talkin' to You." I always liked the piano on this song, and Jamie Foxx's hook is nicely melodic. Beyond that, this was never one of the more notable songs on the album in my opinion. It was good however, and helped make it a front-to-back success.

"F*** how many millions I got, n***a, so what if I'm hot
When I got prices on my head, feds rushing my spot
A million haters want me dead, forced to carry a gat
'But you's a seven-time felon, what you doing with that?'
It's a Catch-22, either you lose or you lose
That's the way the game structured, for real, n***as to suffer."

6. Ride Wit Me
T.I. with his Rolls Royce Phantom
Add this one, along with What You Know, to the official 2006 Winder-Barrow High School Parking Lot playlist. The smooth organ on this track is perfectly accompanied by a booming 808 that sounded brilliant on the 2-10's under the back seat of my '98 F-150. I loved this song for two reasons. One, its concept was simple and easy to relate to: riding around your hometown in a vehicle (well, I couldn't relate to this aspect of the song, as in the song Tip is riding around in a Rolls Royce Phantom) and taking in its sights and sounds. Two, the hometown he describes in the song is Atlanta, the closest city to my small hometown of Winder:

"Ride wit me n***a, let me show you where we kick it at
Where them killers living at and T.I.P. be chilling at
Ride with a G, come and ride with a G
All through the ATL, come and ride wit a G."

This was the one I would put on in the truck for that five minute ride home from school on a sunny Friday afternoon. I remember hearing many others doing the same.

7. Why You Wanna
This song got decent radio play but was never one of my favorites. It always felt to me like the obligatory "I'm popular among the females, you know?" song on that could be found on every rap album in 2006.

8. Get It
This Swizz Beatz-produced track cranks the tempo of the album back up a notch with a beat that is hard to describe but even harder to ignore. It's combination of rapid-fire and semi-random drum patterns, whistles, honks, shouts, and horns make it sound different than any other track on the album. On this canvas, T.I. laces several surprising, intriguing sequences that are infectious. I always found myself reciting little one or two-liners from this track hours after listening to it. It gets stuck in your head in a good way. The highlight of the fairly short track is the bridge at the 2:15 mark:

"I was raised off Eazy, 'Cube, Ice T, 8Ball, MJG, 'Face, Pimp C
I'm a G just believe me, try me when you see me
And n***as start busting like they start busting pushups

pushing buttons, shot calling, n***as not balling
Just doing a lot of loud mouthing and hot dogging
I got this s**t locked from Atlanta to New Orleans"

9. Top Back
This is by all accounts a classic. It is probably the first song on the official 2006 Winder-Barrow High School Parking Lot playlist, and probably beat out What You Know for total spins when it was all said and done. It was released as the third official promotional single off of "King," was wildly popular on the radio, and only gained popularity when the remix came out featuring Young Jeezy, Big Kuntry King, Young Dro, and B.G. Catchy doesn't even begin to describe the hook:

T.I. clearly likes his top let back.
"I like my beat down low, down low, down low, down low, down low, down low,
I like my top let back, let back, let back, let back, let back, let back...
I like my beat down low, and my top let back
See me riding 24's, with a chopper in the back
Holler if you like your Kenwood high, and you top let back,
If you rims sit high, and your windows pitch black..."

This banger had the benefit of Mannie Fresh's signature bounce, with thumping 808's at several different frequencies that really put on a show with a good set of subs. It also helped that the entire concept of the song was a celebration of the joy that accompanies having your beat down low (and your top let back). I sent this one banging out the windows of the old F-150 many, many times. Besides the hook, my favorite sequence has always been the opening of verse three.

"I wear the crown down under man somebody better tell 'em
'Fore I spit a hundred rounds and have everybody bailing
I got some b****es in a Benz and my partners in the Chevy
And now we riding Giovanni's and Asani's on Pirellis"

When I listen to this song, I always end up with "and now we riding Giovanni's and Asani's on Pirellis" stuck in my head.

T.I. & Young Jeezy
10. I'm Straight (Feat. B.G. and Young Jeezy)
This was always in the "good enough" category for me, and I would let it play through, but it's not one of my favorites on the album. T.I. was always a little too focused on featuring his Grand Hustle labelmates, as evidenced here by yet another B.G. feature. Honestly Jeezy's verse, along with his iconic ad-libs, save this song from being a dud:

"Snowman b***h! (b***h), I ride two-seaters (yeeearnnn!!) It's a cold world, so I keep two heaters (Cheeaah!)
I'm straight, you better ask somebody (body)
Matter fact n***a you can just ask me (me)"

Laying down great ad-libs really is an art form of its own, and listening back to this song reminds me that nobody ever did it better than the Snowman. But back to Clifford "T.I." Harris and his classic album.

11. Undertaker (Feat. Young Dro, Young Buck, and DJ Drama)
The dark keys and organ chords on this track complement the pretty bouncy kick drum well, and make it a well balanced production that comes across as simultaneously smooth and intimidating. This song is sneakily cool for a few reasons. One, I've always loved the way Tip slides into his opening verse:

"I'm a pimp tight, n***a riding clean after midnight
Ready for the gun play, prepared for a fist fight."

Two, Young Dro a.k.a. the Best Thang Smokin' was ALWAYS a great feature. It's unclear to this day why exactly zero of his studio albums ever dropped, but he had a unique ability to manipulate multi syllable words and make the phonetic sounds within them connect to and rhyme with the words around them. This verse is yet another example of that skill. Pay attention to how he rides the soft e and a vowel sounds in Hey/trap followed by the long "e" sound in me/blasphemy, through this entire sequence:

Young Dro - Polo Ralph Lauren Connoisseur
"Hey, stand in on the trap with me
Matching me is blasphemy, thousand round magazine
My partners say no attacking me
I'm aged to the average beef, respiratory crushing beats
Fruit Chevy H.I.C, my lyrics hit like H.I.V.
Spray by me, Sniper Dro, murder come today by me
Bullet chip your L-I-P and dirty all your H-I-Ps"

Let's take this moment to #NeverForget Dro's influence on the rap community's appropriation of Polo Ralph Lauren clothing. P.O.L.O. Players only live once.

Young Buck's presence on this track is cool enough, but let's move on.

12. Stand Up Guy
I never liked T.I. as much when he got sing-songey, which he does on the chorus of this mostly forgettable track. One of the few semi-filler tracks on "King."

13. You Know Who
This track is a boxing match in the form of music. I have always loved its brash, crashing drums and soaring organ and horn riffs. It actually features some live drums from Travis Barker, a cool addition to its sound. T.I. goes deep voice again on this one, flowing with a similar sound and style to "What You Know." It fits the mood of the bombastic, analog beat perfectly. The track is appropriately short, coming in at just under 3 minutes. It's just two verses, but Tip does work in each one. I love the first line. It's robust and straightforward and opens the track perfectly:

"You said they looking for the realest? Well I'm as real as it gets"

The whole second verse is actually really dope. He catches onto the ou sound in "you" and rides it smoothly through the entire sequence. It get slightly syncopated as the verse goes on and becomes more and more mesmerizing as it rolls to the song's finish. It seems like he doesn't even take a breath until the end of the verse:

"But now I'm settling in, getting used to the view
On top, won't stop til I'm huger than you
Don't flop? Who, Me? Pimp you loose in your screws
What kinda dope have you been letting n***as shoot into you
No, you ain't ready for the s**t I'm introducing to you
The roof in the back of the Bach ain't as translucent as you
So now your n***a dressing up, man do what you do
I got style pimp, it's more than just the suit and the shoe
This been proven, I'm the truth, stamped government sealed
I'm what it is. These other n***as just suckers with deals, for real."

14. Goodlife (Feat. Pharrell and Common)
Overly Earnest T.I. has never been my favorite T.I., and his opening verse on this song is a bit overly earnest. I never really felt like Common fit well into the vibe of this album, and there's nothing particularly special about his verse on this song. Pharrell on the hook is decent enough, but allow me to commit blasphemy real quickly, and just honestly say that I have never liked The Neptunes' production. At least for artists like T.I. When I'm listening to Tip, I want DJ Toomp or someone similar on the boards. I never felt like this song was as good as it looked on paper.

15. Hello (Feat. Governor)
When selecting your artist name, you probably shouldn't choose a common noun like "Governor," because you will never, ever, be the first result in a Google search. Considering this MIGHT be the only song this artist known as Governor has ever been featured on, it probably doesn't matter. Another joint about the ladies, I was always essentially neutral about this track. Mostly I remember it as setting up the excellent concluding sequence of the album.

16. Told You So
Perhaps the best opening second of any song on the album is the muffled "Grand Hustle Pimp" at the beginning of this track. NOW we're back to vintage "King" era T.I. I love the snappy snares and high hats and the way they bounce back and forth between the semi-reggae horn honks that make up the foundation of this beat. However this song really shines because of the storytelling that is woven throughout its three verses. I have always thought T.I. was a great storyteller, and he stays locked in throughout this track, recounting his rise through the southern rap ranks, honoring his influences, and sharing elements of his rags-to-riches personal story. I would share my favorite lines below, but in this particular song each verse is equally engaging, and shines in its own right from a sonic and semantic standpoint. Also, if you listen closely, he is kind of yelling ad-lib phrases in the background throughout this entire song. It's a cool little detail that adds an interesting layer to any listen. The track is mastered well to allow that to blend so well into the background. One particular line sums up the concept of the song, and the album overall, very well:

"This southern rap s**t of today is something I helped design."

17. Bankhead (Feat. P$C and Young Dro)
 Just a fantastic conclusion to this album. With its minor chord progression, eerie combination of keys and strings, and steady 808 kick, the beat is quintessentially DJ Toomp. His production lays the foundation on which T.I. and his friends from P$C give a dark and paranoid ode to their west Atlanta neighborhood. This is one of the rare songs where I enjoy T.I. getting melodic on the hook. The way he croons "Now where am I supposed to goooooooo?" on the hook has a chillingly authentic edge of hopelessness to it. Several other lyrical moments stand out to me on this posse cut:

"See me riding in a Chevy, .44 on the seat
With a quarter or a blow, get low, then we see
No tag, no license, trunk loaded with D
Riding Fulton indy, where we know it to be."

Tip delivers this verse quietly, almost like he's sneaking around at night while he records it. The resulting effect is eerily cool.

C-Rod of P$C
"That's right, monster ride, sitting on the twenty-eights 
It sound like a stadium, you would've thought the Braves played
The engine running like Vick, with the Falcons on the hood
Mr. Mr. Westside, yeah you know they in my hood."

Vick makes a cameo with Usher in the Rubberband Man video.
I always loved the Atlanta sports references in this sequence, particularly because I had just spent several years enjoying the Michael Vick era on Sunday afternoons in the Dome. That era would soon come to a disastrous end, but in the mid 2000's Vick was That Dude in Atlanta. I still remember him having a cameo in the video for "Rubberband Man."

Young Dro
"Ten screens falling, my Chevy watching Lean On Me
Riding down Simpson, 'bout to waste my purple lean on me
Purple linen clean on me, the whole zone three on me
Waffle House Charger yellow-black, I got a bee on me"

Like I said earlier, Dro always comes through on his features.

"King" was the perfect storm of an album and was immediately destined to nostalgically become one of my favorites of all time. It was released when I was 16 years old, came ready-made to demonstrate the capabilities of my fully aftermarket truck audio system, featured infectious production that was unlike anything I'd ever heard before, shared stories from a culture within my home city that I found fascinating because I couldn't really relate to it,  and was lyrically entertaining from start to finish. I even thought the album cover art was perfect: Bold, black and white, and minimalist during an era of maximalist culture in rap. I found it brilliantly understated and infinitely cool. It's an album that will always have a special place in my heart and ears.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Saturday Afternoon in Merrymont

Merrymont is an eclectic collection of small homes nestled within a sprawling residential section of Martinez, GA, just northwest of Augusta. Around here it is pronounced "Martin-ez," (like it's a non-hispanic guy's first name) and I gave up about a year ago on trying to make a cultural statement by correctly pronouncing it Martinez (like a hispanic guy's last name). For the last two years this neighborhood has been my home.

Bordered by the slightly more upscale Spring Lakes to the south and east (but with no physical barrier between the two), Merrymont is full of American working-class diversity and charm. The longer I have lived here, the more I have come to appreciate its quirks and eccentricities. Its idiosyncratic qualities make it unique and interesting amongst the convergence of highly maintained and manicured subdivisions that make up much of neighboring Evans, GA.

I have come to love my neighborhood. It is not hip. It is not artsy. It is not trendy. It is not known. It has no carefully constructed identity. It is purely, simply, American. And it is full of life. Real life.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I attempted to capture some of its character with my camera. These photos are just a peek into its strange and wonderful vibrance.