With an 11-month prison stint for probation violation currently holding his recording and touring careers hostage, rap star T.I. has a lot to apologize for. (Three years ago, he was sentenced to a year on weapons charges). On his latest album, No Mercy (Atlantic/Grand Hustle), released amidst his latest round of legal troubles, the rapper offers explanations and pledges no more screw-ups as he aims to re-connect with those who have stood by him through thick and thin. But even he shouldn’t be surprised if people start responding in a manner that suggests that they’ve had enough of the heard-it-all-before excuses.
On No Mercy, he dedicates special tracks like the Chris Brown-assisted “Get Back Up” to appeal to fans with the reminder that he’s just a man, only human. The feeling of genuine sincerity, however, is not arresting. And speaking of Brown, who better to co-testify to the experience of being openly and unsympathetically criticized in the wake of a widely publicized, if passing, fall from grace.
As for the rest of the album, it’s not T.I.’s most solid or satisfying work (not even close), but there’s enough heat here to tide over die-hard fans till his emergence from the pen to put down some real work in the studio. At times introspective and remorseful, hopeful and celebratory, No Mercy finds T.I. addressing familiar topics that range from detractors to the good life to sexual conquests. He gets ample support in the form of multiple guest appearances, including Trey Songz (the bedroom romp “Strip”) and Drake (the party starter “Poppin’ Bottles”) and The Dream who provides the hook on the passable title track.
Coasting on solid production work from a roster of hitmakers that comprises Danja, Jim Jonsin and Dr. Luke, the mood is predominantly uptempo and drenched in raw fiery energy. But the album is surely at its best when T.I. and company aim for depth. The melodic and haunting “Castle Walls” (with vocals from Christina Aguilera) is a near-perfect summary of what superstar entertainers often quietly endure in and away from the limelight. The stellar rags-to-riches tale “How Life Changed” (featuring Scarface and Michelle’I) and the bruising, urgent album opener “Welcome to the World” (with Kanye West and Kid Cudi) are also noteworthy standouts.
Still, it becomes painfully clear that No Mercy falls short of the calibre output one has come to expect from T.I. (whose previous records include the hits King and Paper Trail), known not just for stinging missives fired at his enemies, but biting commentary on the state of affairs and incisive, memorable lyricism that immediately grabs you. No Mercy hardly delivers enough to persuade or satisfy.
DOWNLOAD: The reflective “How Life Changed” and the solemn “Castle Walls”