Well… this is awkward. It has been a little while since we’ve heard from T.I. lately, and I don’t think anyone was expecting him to make his comeback appearance on a controversial new Kanye West track, which dropped a few days prior to this writing. Nonetheless, the randomizer chooses what it chooses, so it looks like I’m due to cover one of the biggest singles from this formerly hip rapper.
By saying that, though, I’m probably glossing over the undeniable clout of T.I.’s reputation – after all, he is one of the most important figures to bring the now inescapable trend of trap music to the scene, as well as being pretty huge during the latter half of the 2000s. He achieved his first top ten single with “Bring ‘Em Out” in 2004, which demonstrates a lot of lyrical flexing and a flat, disposable production style typical of the Southern rap scene at the time. Nonetheless, there was some undeniable talent present in T.I.’s flow, and these strengths were amplified even further with 2006’s “What You Know”, which made it to #3. Amidst a much cleaner, synth-laden production by DJ Toomp (which earned the both of them a Grammy win), this song may have continued to be lacking in lyrical quality, but there was no denying how catchy that hook was. This song – along with his follow-up, the rawer top-ten single “Big Shit Poppin’ (Do It)” – cemented T.I. into a place of untouchable superstardom.
And then comes his 2008 album, Paper Trails, which would generate four top ten singles, two of them becoming number-one singles themselves. The lead single was, of course, “Whatever You Like”, which continued the ascent of increased sophistication from the rapper – only on a slightly different tangent. See, “Whatever You Like” is the first time we’ve seen T.I. perform on a track without doing much rapping. As opposed to the pronounced boasting and ego-boosting that made up the bulk of his previous hits, this one is something of a love song and T.I. sort of strolls along line by line, trading harsh rhythms and flows in place of an actual melody. I’ve got a sort of half-assed theory that rappers often succeed at topping the Hot 100 once they soften up their rough edges and make themselves palatable for a mainstream (see: white, middle-class) audience. T.I.’s career certainly follows this formula, not just with this song but also this albums other two giant singles, “Live Your Life” featuring Rihanna (who is already having a good 2008) and “Dead and Gone” featuring Justin Timberlake. Anyone who listened to top 40 radio at any point between 2008 and 2009 can attest that these three songs were everywhere.
Honestly, though, “Whatever You Like” is probably the biggest of them all. Its single week 70-spot jump to number-one set the record for the largest jump to the top (a record that has since been surpassed) and the success of his follow-up singles could only be seen as a response to this one’s success. Like T.I.’s best singles, this one is catchy as hell – even though the chorus may not be the most family-friendly, one can be sure that everyone was singing along with, “You can have whatever you like…”, whether they wanted to or not. This song was produced by Jim Jonsin, who would win a Grammy for his work on Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” the following year. Truthfully, although the production on “Lollipop” is one of that song’s best attributes, I much prefer the pumping, buzzy synths of T.I.’s track than the tinny quality of Wayne’s. Setting aside anything else I could criticize about this song, there’s no denying that this bass-heavy backup, coupled with more playfully melodic keys, makes this track at least somewhat worth a listen no matter what. Thankfully, the album version of this song ends with a purely instrumental outro, giving these wonderful production elements a much-deserved solo.
Remember how I said that this strayed from the boasting of the rapper’s earlier work into more love song territory? Well, there’s a twist – it seems that T.I. is only capable of displaying love and affection if it is in some way tied to bragging how wealthy he is. As the chorus goes, “Stacks on deck, Patron on ice, and we can pop bottles all night”. Later on, he mentions his “five million dollar home”, “vacations in the tropics”, and general references to all the money he has. So much money! I guess a good number of people might interpret this as being a sentiment display from a rich man to the love of his life (I’m sure many couples loved this song), but literally speaking, it reads as little more than a rich man who wants to share his wealth with his trophy girlfriend because she’s hot. No shame in that, of course, but I’m a little suspicious that T.I.’s switch to a more sing-song tone tricked others into thinking this is deeper than it actually is. It’s the same old flexing, dressed up in different clothes… probably a Gucci designer suit, or something.
And it probably doesn’t need to be said that T.I.’s singing voice just isn’t… good. Of course, that doesn’t make this song inherently bad – in fact, I find his carefree attitude pretty charming and fitting to the song’s themes. No, what really brings it down are some of its lyrics – namely the second half of the chorus: “Late night sex, so wet and so tight / I’ll gas up the jet for you tonight and you can go wherever you like”. The first part of this is distracting, awkward, and totally unneeded; the second part, reading after the first part, can only be read in my mind as some sort of perverted metaphor… I’ll just stop there.
My second-least favorite line is T.I.’s jesting demand that his girl, “Tell ’em other broke n****s be quiet”. “Whatever You Like” could have been actually passable had it remained a pretty straight-forward tune about a man pleasing a woman with his riches. Of course, bringing the competition element into it reveals itself as what it truly is deep inside: just another brag rap song. Just like that, all the other lines about his cash, vacations, and expensive vehicles feel little more than attempts at empty self-satisfaction on T.I.’s part. I’m all for a trashy pop-rap tune that I casually listen to because “I like the beat” – I would throw this one into the pile, in fact. But when the exuberance of the production is largely overshadowed by the dullness of the lyrics, the latter just feel like loud, obnoxious window dressing. That would probably be the best discriptor of this song, at the end of the day: window dressing. Probably embroidered with the Louis Vuitton logo, or something.