Rapper T.I. hit up Houston's Wire Road Studios on Thursday and had some new music with him.
Among the more promising songs on T.I.’s new album is “Track Back Jumpin,” a defiant and feisty ode to reclaiming lost territory when naysayers abound. Though the setting is the Atlanta drug game, the track could just as easily be about the rap game, where a growing chorus of hip-hop fans believes the one-time “King of the South” is in danger of being forced off his “corner.” It’s not surprising then, that “Track Back Jumpin” was the first song the Atlanta rapper unveiled off his latest album, “Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head,” on Thursday for a small clique of groupies, journalists and Houston hip-hop royalty at a listening party. His eighth studio album takes its name from Marvin Gaye’s soundtrack for the 1972 Blaxploitation film starring Robert Hooks.
With TV Johnny, Bun B, Trae Tha Truth, C. Stone, Kirko Bangz, Killa Kyleon and Slim Thug crowded into a small room at Wire Road Studios on the city’s north side, the message was clear: After years of legal troubles, and a slew of forgettable material focused on those troubles, T.I., whose real name is Clifford “Tip” Harris, appears poised to reclaim his spot atop hip-hop’s Southern hierarchy.
But he credited the Houston rap scene with shaping his music along the way.
“Houston artists have influenced music in so many ways that even my music has been influenced by the city" T.I. said. "There are songs on this album which reflect that fact.”
Wearing a Washington Redskins cap tilted to the side and a matching maroon sweatshirt, T.I. set up a MacBook in the middle of the room and thanked everyone for coming out. He was both maestro and DJ, channeling the music through his wiry frame and pausing to select tracks, which he introduced with a little background information.
“For this album my intention was to take the familiar sound of T.I. and combine it with more mainstream work,” he said, before referencing his legal woes. “I ain’t got nothin’ to apologize for.”
Critics tend to disagree. They mostly panned his last album, “No Mercy,” which was released in August 2010 and sandwiched between two stints behind bars, first on Federal weapons charges and later for a parole violation involving drugs. T.I. reemerged late last year on “T.I. and Tiny: The Family Hustle,” a family-friendly VH1 reality show, bantering with his wife and scolding his six kids for drinking juice on his mansion’s white furniture. With two seasons of the show under his belt and a newly-formed pot belly hanging over it, proclamations of youthful dominance were beginning to look doubtful for the 32-year-old.
But as a wall full of speakers pumped out songs featuring the youthful vigor of Meek Mill, A$ap Rocky, Lil Wayne and Kendrick Lamar, the rapper looked like his former self as he bounced to the beat and downed plastic cups of Ciroc.
The album’s notable tracks include “Sorry, ” a silky-smooth ballad strung alongside T.I.’s gritty phrasing, which turns especially interesting when Andre 3000 takes over, eventually upstaging his host. But it also has its fair share of forgettable pop tracks, like “Cruisin,” in which the rapper’s reminds us of his affinity for Lamborghini’s and lingerie.
That said, there is — as T.I. noted early on in the night — a certain classic familiarity to the album that true fans will actually find refreshing.
“It’s not a departure from my last album, it’s an advancement from my last album,” the rapper said after the session, noting that he was free of the legal distraction’s that plagued 2010’s “No Mercy.” “My energy, my attitude, my circumstances have changed, which allowed my delivery and my posture to change for the better.”
Writer Pete Holley is a former Chronicle reporter.