My hubby, Eric, and I got into an argument about T.I. while driving back from the Neil Diamond concert the other night. (I know, it's not typical to mix the Jewish Elvis and Atlanta's illest, but that's the poptimist life we lead.) "Paper Trail," Tip's sixth album, was in the car stereo, and we were admiring the shiny-sharp production from Drumma Boy, Toomp, Just Blaze and others, which sets up the rapper's coolly commanding flow on hit after soon-to-be hit -- the album's already produced three Billboard Top 100 winners, and it's been out only a week.
Foremost among T.I.'s current successes is "Whatever You Like," pop-rap's latest ode to throwing money around. The singsong rap was produced by Jim Jonsin, who also co-produced Lil Wayne's smash "Lollipop"; like that song, it's a rough guy's come-on, deceptively light in tone but with an undertow that represents its hero's driving need for conquest. With five nonconsecutive weeks topping the charts, it's T.I.'s most successful single ever.
It also just might be the perfect soundtrack for a nation in an economic tailspin.
Listening, Eric described the song as "sweet." I thought otherwise. He heard T.I.'s offer to shower goodies on his paramour -- Bentleys, top-shelf tequila, a ride in his gassed-up jet -- as an expression of joy similar to Nelly's still-irresistible 2001 favorite "Ride Wit Me" (who didn't love yelling "Must be the money!" that summer?). I couldn't take my ears off the lines he kept repeating about the girl: "I want your body, I need your body . . ." and more explicit ones too. To me, this sounded like a john's purchase. For Eric, it was a love song and a celebration of good fortune; the magnanimous gesture of someone who considers himself absurdly blessed.
Who was right? Upon further consideration, I think both of us were. And it's that tension that makes "Whatever You Like" more than just another bling litany. In fact, it's one of pop's strongest embodiments of the weird mood afflicting our nation right now.
T.I. starts off by announcing his rhyme as, possibly, a joke. "Hey Jim," he drawls to his producer, "you know them ol' sugar daddies. They be trickin', they tell them girls . . ." And that's when the chorus of offers begins. So this isn't even T.I.'s story. It's an amused account of seduction's age-old game of chance played by two -- a game all of us play, as lovers, but also perhaps as gamblers on other tables, like real estate or the stock market. Jonsin's production enhances the sporting mood. T.I.'s voice is multitracked, and when mixed with Ricco Barrino's nimble, high-pitched backing vocals, it sounds like a child's improvised song to himself. A noodling synthesizer line, like a toy's tinkle, playing against the drama of the sample from Bill Conti's "Redemption" (Theme from "Rocky II").
Assuring his date that he can "drop a couple stacks" whenever she picks up the phone, T.I. casually unfurls a characteristic list of gangsta pleasures. In return, he only wants that body, though he does mention that she has a good brain too. The list soon circles around -- the song is like one of those playground games whose connections to hip-hop the ethnomusicologist Kyra Gaunt has traced -- but the lines about T.I.'s lust still jump out. He's comfortable in his wealth but never able to relax when it comes to his desire.
The insecurity that lurks behind T.I.'s ease is a theme that runs throughout "Paper Trail," which was recorded while the artist was under house arrest for a weapons possessions charge; he'll serve hard time in 2009. On some tracks, like the defensive "Ready for Whatever," he confronts his fate directly; elsewhere it's a semi-spoken threat, haunting the good times.
In "Whatever You Like," T.I. aims to remain the master of his elaborate fantasy, but the lyric's relentlessly repetitive structure pulls him down into the realm of the id. He's the man who can't resist spending his resources, trapped by his amped-up needs -- for sex, but maybe also for status and material excess -- into an endless cycle of deposits and withdrawals at his "rubber band bank."
In his hunger, T.I. seems a lot like the average American stranded at the corner of Wall Street and Main Street. Why would a song about insane levels of affluence entrance pop fans as economic crisis hits? Maybe the answer to that is obvious: We want escape. But "Whatever You Like" has stuck to the top of the charts because it also feeds that creeping dread no golden dream can currently abate.
The video for "Whatever You Like," directed by Dave Meyers, explicitly plays out the song's hidden story. In it, T.I. stops by a fast-food restaurant and flirts a bit with the young woman who serves him. Departing (after ordering food for his posse, including a woman who's probably his girlfriend), he stuffs something into her hand.
She discovers it's his phone number and drifts into a dream of what happens when she calls -- a date in T.I.'s rooftop garden, leading to gifts of jewelry and cars, red-carpet moments, everything money can buy. But then her bubble bursts. Her actual boyfriend's at the counter, scruffy and in need of a hair-braiding session. Looking at her clenched fist, she sees that all T.I. left was a $100 bill.
In this scenario, T.I. doesn't simply play a sugar daddy -- he's the free market itself, enticing a hopeful girl with a little cash and a lot of delicious talk. The money melting in her hand at the video's end represents the shrinking value of crazy deals in which so many have indulged.
T.I. himself makes a point to list his assets throughout "Paper Trail." He's looking at a rough 2009, but he's staying optimistic. Got to keep up that consumer confidence, after all. The economy is relying on people like him.