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Snap judgment: T.I. returns

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I was pretty upset when T.I. was caught in a federal gun sting last fall. Above all, my heart went out to a smart, personable artist who’d gotten himself into some major trouble — and on a purely selfish level, I worried that the 30-year prison term he was facing might cut the career of one of my favorite rappers way too short. But T.I. was able to strike an extraordinarily lenient plea bargain last month, and today he debuted his first post-arrest music. “No Matter What,” the lead single from his new album Paper Trail (now bumped up to an August 12 release), is streaming on StreetCred.com; you can also check it out below. So how does T.I. sound these days?

Good news: This ordeal hasn’t taken anything out of him, talent-wise. That’s not to say he hasn’t changed. The T.I. we knew was a stylish lyricist, a guy who grinned as he delivered boasts and death threats in a shower of mellifluous verse. Here he slows that quicksilver flow down to a reflective drawl that matches producer Nate “Danja” Hills’ stately beat. He wants us to hear what he has to say. That includes words of genuine contrition: “Apologies to the fans, I hope you can understand it/Life can changedirections, even when you ain’t plan it/All you can do is handleit.” It also includes some glimpses of defiant pride: “Pain’s a small thing to a giant/I was born without a dime/Out thegutter I climbed/Spoke my mind/And didn’t stutter one time/Ali saideven the greatest have to suffer sometimes.” Ultimately, he settles on a spirituality that recalls Tupac Shakur’s most influential work: “I hope the picture’s painted clear/If your heart’s filled with faith, then you can’t fear/Wonder how I faced years and I’m still chilling?/Easy: Let go and let God deal with it.” There are more than a few contradictions and ambiguities packed into all that — and he never quite gets around to talking about what was going through his mind when he decided to buy up all those illegal weapons. Then again, it would have been very easy for T.I. to back away entirely from his inner turmoil and cut an impersonal club banger for his first single. I’m glad he chose to bare his (complicated) soul again instead. Aren’t you?