Prison hasn’t mellowed Atlanta rapper T.I., but it has infused his long-awaited album No Mercy with newfound depth. The album acts almost like a roll call for some of the most important rappers and producers working today, but they never overshadow the main attraction.

T.I.

No Mercy
Grand Hustle

The album, originally called King Uncaged, was renamed (probably not coincidentally) after T.I was arrested less than a year after being released from prison back in February. T.I’s stints in the joint define No Mercy, as he reflects on his life, from rough childhood to house arrest. Listeners will find a rapper trying to reinvent himself, and the result is a raw, intense album that is easily some of his best work.

No Mercy opens with the epic “Welcome To The World” featuring both Kanye West and Kid Cudi. This is unequivocally a Yeezy production, with a quick, paranoid piano and a hard beat. Cudi adds vocals to this atmospheric song while T.I. pulls back the shiny veneer of the hip-hop world with honest rhymes like “I don’t need a chain or the fame / Still shine spend time with the girls of fake smiles / Broken hearts trying hard in the club looking for her real love / You won’t find it here.”

It wouldn’t be a T.I. album without a club track saturated by sex. “Strip” features the smooth party mainstay Trey Songz singing predatorily that “Imma take your clothes off.” T.I.’s verses are characteristically graphic and work almost as an instructional guide on how to have sex. And T.I. isn’t picky: He’ll “fuck whoever’s closest.” Charming. Young Dro echoes similar themes and his gritty, oversexed verses contrast nicely with Trey Songz’s crooning. But this track isn’t about brilliant wordplay. It’s destined to be a sweaty club banger, something all the sexy co-eds can grind to in low-lit basements across the country.

T.I. is no stranger to pop collaborations, and the closing track “Castle Walls” featuring The Voice (Christina Aguilera) ranks among the strongest on the album. The song has a claustrophobic feel, which was undoubtedly inspired by T.I.’s time under house arrest. He waxes poetic about his hard upbringing, his arrests and isolation. T.I.’s strongest verses are his most introspective. Denouncing all the fame and fortune listeners have heard him sing so much about, he rhymes, “The belief is that I’m living out a millionaire’s fantasy with phantoms and Ferraris in the driveway / But you see the pain and the change of the same man’s sanity / Your vision jaded by the Grammys on the mantelpiece.” The track suggests the rapper has become disillusioned with the rap game he used to run.

A couple of vapid throwaway tracks like the boring, wannabe club hit “Poppin’Bottles” and the (ironically) unimpressive track “Amazing” weigh down the surprisingly layered No Mercy. But these are small missteps on an album filled with strong, well produced tracks. It’s a shame that T.I. won’t be able to properly celebrate the release of this album since the judicial system ironically showed him no mercy. But if the rapper’s latest work is any indication, T.I. will “Get Back Up” in no time.

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