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We look back at T.I.’s King, which sold more than 500,000 copies the week it came out, won T.I. a Grammy, and which turns 10 today, March 28, 2016.
Radio edits aren’t supposed to hit this hard. The version of T.I.’s “What You Know” that barreled into carpools and middle school gyms at the top of 2006 had been scrubbed and reformatted to fit Clear Channel — at least in theory. As far as we can tell, there were no FCC fines to speak of, no Congressional hearings, no PTA protests. The Atlantic Records machinations churned on as expected.
It was Tip’s biggest single to date, and the catalyst that would launch him fully onto rap’s A-list, a place he’d occupy for nearly a decade after (despite the federal weapons charges and the further collapse of the major label system). “What You Know” went Double-Platinum. it was the bridge from Trap Muzik to Justin Timberlake. But go back, close your eyes, listen to the censored version, and imagine setting fire to everything on the set of 106 & Park.
See, the hook was already cryptic, at least by Top 40 standards:
“Ay, don’t you know I got keys by the three
When I chirp, shorty 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
Loaded .44, on the low, where the cheese at?
Fresh out the jet, to the ’jects, where the Gs at?
What you know about that? What you know about that?
What you know about that? I know all about that”
But the version sent to AJ, Free et al. had a muted roar in place of “keys,” and a rattling “Ay! Oh!” for the two syllables in “.44.” Swapping out words in commercial releases usually satisfies basic censorship requirements at the cost of a song’s visceral bite, and sometimes its very message. But on “What You Know,” the changes acted as a flashing neon sign for uninitiated listeners: There’s something going on under the surface, and this song isn’t about backpacks.
Speaking of backpacks, 2006 was an uncertain and, to some traditionally minded listeners, barren time for hip-hop. Singles artists, mostly from the deep South, ruled the day, and it was en vogue for critics and fans to disown the cerebral underground rap of the early 2000s. The best-selling albums from the previous year were the disappointing sophomore effort from 50 Cent, Kanye West’s Late Registration, The Game’s The Documentary, Eminem’s greatest hits compilation, and the soundtrack to the Get Rich or Die Tryin’ movie. Wayne dropped Tha Carter II in December, and though it wasn’t immediately clear, he was on his way to devouring everything in his path.
Well, nearly everything. T.I. had put out Platinum albums in 2003 and 2004 (Trap Muzik and Urban Legend, respectively), and was building a stellar singles catalog. But the national music press was still entertaining the nonsense notion of New York and the Southern states as opposing forces, and artists from Atlanta who couldn’t reasonably claim to be OutKast members were seldom seen to be steering the genre — an obvious and egregious critical failure. With King, T.I. set out to change that, to become the World’s Biggest Rap Star. And he more or less did it.
The only rap album that sold more copies in 2006 was Jay-Z’s abysmal comeback record, Kingdom Come, and Jay is probably the best analog for what Tip was doing. The Brooklyn legend was careful in how he positioned himself with each new record: Vol. 2 was unabashed pop, so Vol. 3 pitched Jay as a cagey criminal; The Dynasty was decadent and The Blueprint was the sober takeover. With King, T.I. set out to build a broad coalition without mortgaging his base — the plan that’s derailed many more careers than it’s made. The record succeeds not only because of its star-studded production lineup but because tracks that should be at cross-purposes build on one another to flesh out the rapper’s worldview.
King is anchored by two sets of songs, the first of which pays homage to the early- and mid-’90s records from Atlanta and Texas that influenced him. “Front Back” actually features Bun B and Pimp C, an A-side qualifier for the glossier cuts that come later. “Ride Wit Me” belongs a full decade before “Rubberband Man”; the Young Jeezy- and B.G.-featuring “I’m Straight” is slinking and syrupy — and, to be real, completely stolen by the Hot Boy’s jail and courthouse recollections. (It might be of note that “I’m Straight” is produced by Nick Fury, the same guy who produced “Game Over” for Lil Flip, the Houston legend who took particular exception to T.I. calling himself “the King of the South,” and who caught more than a few jabs on “I’m Talkin’ to You.”)
The second block of songs extrapolates the trap music that had made T.I. a bankable star in the South as far back as I’m Serious. The aforementioned “I’m Talkin’ to You” hears Just Blaze approximate Bankhead; on “Get It,” Swizz Beatz answers the question of what it would sound like if someone from The Bronx discovered New Orleans bounce via glitchy speakerphone. And after all the big-budget pyrotechnics we’ll get to in a second, King ends with nine minutes that ignore their existence.
But of course, there are the singles. “Live in the Sky” is the sort of ode to fallen friends that Tip was always capable of, but it’s dressed up here with an evocative piano line and an earnest hook from Jamie Foxx. “Goodlife” is one of the few Neptunes beats from 2006 that’s an utter mess, but he navigates it admirably, and he buys high on Common. And while “Why You Wanna” doesn’t quite pack the sleazy punch of “Let’s Get Away,” it’s a summer single most artists (and their A&R’s sample budgets) could only dream of.
Let’s go back to that censored version of “What You Know.” It tells you most of what you need to know about King. It’s big, brash and anthemic, but tailored for mass consumption. But it’s not a diluted version of the real thing: It’s a Trojan horse, designed to smuggle T.I. at his rawest and most sincere into as many CD drives as possible. Ten years removed, its creator is still a major star, albeit one who left Atlantic, and later Columbia, behind. He’s leaned on Iggy Azalea and Young Thug for his last two hits, but his most recent EP, Da’Nic, suggests he might be eyeing a return to form in the near future. It might seem improbable, but he knows all about that.
Paul Thompson is a Canadian writer and critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in GQ, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine and Playboy, among other outlets.