No Mercy By T.I.
At some point after completing his second-to-last prison term on federal gun charges and before commencing his current 11-month term for violating probation, T.I. found the time to save a man's life and record No Mercy, his seventh studio album. The man's name was Joshua Starks, a 24-year-old Atlanta resident: after hearing on the radio that Starks was threatening to jump from a 22-story building, T.I. rushed to the scene and offered the man words of encouragement. But even an act of selfless heroism failed to curry favor with the jury trying him and so T.I. is currently incarcerated until September 2011. Since this album was obviously recorded in snatches, it's not at all surprising that it's a highly slapdash and uneven effort.
"Welcome to the World" starts things off rather inauspiciously; it's undoubtedly one of the worst tracks Kanye West has ever co-produced, set to a tempo that neither Yeezy nor T.I. seem to feel comfortable rapping over, featuring a tuneless and a silly hook sung by Kid Cudi and the following egregiously ungrammatical lyric: "Broke? / never heard no such thing of"-- not only does he end his sentence with a preposition, but he completely forgoes the verb "to be" -- and this is especially annoying because it finds several great talents resting on their laurels. Much stronger is the ersatz '70s funk of "How Life Changed", produced by Lil C. Strongly invoking Bobby Womack, Isaac Hayes and virtually every proto-disco soul/funk composer to ever score a blaxploitation film, and boasting an okay hook, the track finds T.I. reflecting on the harder times of his youth -- without addressing the arguably much harder times of his adulthood. Still, some of the lyrical fire seems to be missing, and that this may be the result of the enervating effects of T.I.'s never-ending legal woes renders these tracks something of a tragic document.
The pappy, middling inspirational-club-hop-anthem "Get Back Up" features another boring auto-tuned Chris Brown appearance and an anonymous and generic-sounding production from the once cutting-edge Neptunes; strangely, T.I. delivers most of the song's upbeat, positive lyrics in the first verse in a near-whisper with his teeth clenched, which doesn't make any sense. If this is an attempt at an R&B/rap crossover, it's one of the most botched I've ever heard. Far from a pop song, it's almost too underwritten to be a rap beat. And, to nudge an already thoroughly flogged dead horse: it's impossible not to feel a shade of disappointment while listening to a recording of a current convict, from when he was an ex-convict, assuring the listener that, though he's made some mistakes, he's going to get back up. In fact, one possible explanation for the lackluster lyrics and performance is that T.I. might have known that he was telling a lie.
Another funny feature of this album: given that, by 2010, the genre of hip-hop has come to encompass a staggering array of disparate (trendy) sub-genres, and given that, as is usually the case with most major label rap albums, a rather wide assortment of cooks were involved in the spoiling of this broth -- and not just any cooks but commercially viable, possibly even flash-in-the-pan "master chefs" -- No Mercy seems to change not only styles but genres every few minutes. "I Can't Help It" is first song on this album that actually sounds like the work of a southern rapper: featuring a staggeringly excellent verse by T.I. and a detail-oriented production by 1500 or Nothin' of Smash Factory, replete with brassy synths and thunderclap snares.
Another disappointment -- surprising given the track record of its personnel -- is the Dr. Luke and Max Martin-produced "That's All She Wrote": a song about nothing with an annoying beat -- the needling guitar begins to sound like an irritated hornet after about a minute -- another weak performance from T.I. and one from Eminem that is probably too energetic for its own good as it's slightly incoherent; the song also suffers from Eminem's latter-day discovery that he loves to sing. In keeping with the album's stylistically scattershot nature, the downright awful title track might actually be confused with a groundbreaking gothic nü-metal/rap crossover, with a vocal appearance by The-Dream for which he sounds uncomfortably like Amy Lee, but rest assured that it is garbage.
Even worse are the similarly rock-ified shuffle of "Big Picture" -- possibly the silliest thing on the album -- and the underwritten, under-produced, underdeveloped, under-thought-out "Strip," "Everything On Me" and "Poppin' Bottles," but T.I. brings it back with "Salute," which features a muscular yet understated funky production by former G-Unit affiliates Jake One and Boi-1da. The competent "Amazing" features another Neptunes beat, this time one more characteristic of their trademark style -- or, if you like, formula -- with super-sparse instrumentation and dozens of spooky-sounding percussion samples, and "Castle Walls," a duet with Christina Aguilera, concludes the set on what is, by the heretofore established standard, a creative high watermark -- which isn't saying much, but it's actually quite a nice song.
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