T.I. isn’t much of a music guy, is he? Sure, he performs music. He records it. He probably even owns a few CDs, or something like that. But there is no way that this man loves and respects music. If the opposite were true, he would not have brought the earsore that is No Mercy into this world.
Okay, that’s harsh. But this album is full of the same Top 40 tripe that dominates the airwaves. There’s certainly nothing wrong with pop music (personally, I consider myself a poptimist), but there’s good pop music, and there’s bad pop music. This is bad pop music.
Yes, you just read No Mercy described as pop. T.I. is a pop star, an entertainer, and he knows how to manipulate one-dimensional radio listeners into becoming his most ardent fans. For this album alone, he has recruited all of the usual suspects in the songwriting and production world: Kanye/No I.D., Dr. Luke, The-Dream, Danja, The Neptunes, Alex da Kid—the list goes on. No Mercy has taught me the following things: The Neptunes need to hang it up, because their songs became caricatures of themselves a long time ago; Dr. Luke should stay away from pop-rap because he’s not good at it (or at making music in general, really); The-Dream, while normally a competent songwriter and producer, created one of the most hackneyed, embarrassing songs of 2010 with the pandering-for-sympathy title track, a song that postures T.I. as a guilty man who does not feel it necessary to be held accountable for his own wrongdoings.
We’ve heard good hip-hop leaning pop albums this year, and it’s just a shame that they had to come closer to the end of the album and review cycle. Diddy, while normally a veritable laughingstock, showed us some unexpected and genius curatorship with Last Train to Paris, a locomotive body of work that touts modern R&B mixed with Ibiza-influenced electro. Kanye gave us the pained art-rock opus that Adrian Belew probably wished he’d created. The aforementioned leading dudes in hip-hop (remember that Diddy was, at the very least, once responsible for propelling Biggie to superstardom) are clearly bigger music fans than T.I.—they dabble in such niche genres and aspire to bring them to the status quo, hoping to contribute new patches to the giant mainstream hip-hop quilt that has, in recent years, grown astonishingly monochromatic. Guys like T.I. are responsible for this increasing monochromaticity. Guys like T.I. have probably never heard a King Crimson or DJ Hell record, let alone have a passing familiarity with those artists. That’s not to say that all pop artists with limited musical influences make terrible pop albums, but there’s been an ever-increasing trend that argues for the opposite.
Not only is the album full of derivative R&B/rap/pop mishmash, but it’s also tremendously unfocused and, for the most part, T.I.’s presence isn’t even necessary (sometimes it’s virtually nonexistent). The admittedly-decent “Welcome to the World” is more of a Kanye/Kid Cudi showcase and would actually do better on a Kanye or Cudi album. T.I. is completely expendable. The same goes for the repetitive, rehashed Neptunes track “Amazing”, which is dominated by Pharrell rather than T.I., making him expendable yet again. This happens again on the hashtaggy “Poppin’ Bottles” and the Trey Songz-led “Strip”—you get the idea.
So we have an album from a guy who probably doesn’t even enjoy music that much, choc-full of the same ol’ radio-friendly songwriting and production, and to top it all off, the album is soggy with crocodile tears because the world has been so cruel to T.I. It has shown him, as he believes, “no mercy.” The album is one giant pity party, as you might have surmised from the somber front cover, and you have tracks like “Get Back Up” with Chris Brown, another sympathy-seeking guy who wants audiences to gloss over the fact that he beat ex-girlfriend Rihanna to a pulp. “No Mercy” makes the pandering even more blatant, with the hook asking, “Is there no mercy for me?” as ominous bells and chimes ring in the background over some half-hearted, exceedingly contrived funeral beat. Does it get worse? Oh, it does: T.I. closes out the album seeing how hard he can pull on the heartstrings of the similarly beaten and broken in “Castle Walls”, the “duet” with Christina Aguilera that discusses how rich and sad and indicted he is, as if the self-aggrandizing sorrowfest wasn’t bad enough throughout the entire album. Life is so hard, isn’t it, T.I.?
Artists almost always release albums after they suffer in the public eye, and those albums are almost always appalling. But hey, Kanye took the whole tortured, evil genius/villain stigma and made great art with it. Why couldn’t T.I. have done the same? Probably because he doesn’t even have the capacity for it. He’s a basic entertainer, one whose only source of music is probably Ryan Seacrest’s Top 40 countdown, a generic R&B radio station out of Atlanta, and an OJ da Juiceman album he happened to bum off OJ himself. No Mercy is what happens when too many different people attempt to prop up a guy who doesn’t know a ton about music, mercy, or himself. Consequently, it’s a collection of songs that are as dismal, embarrassing, and boring as you might expect.