Review: T.I.'s Album, "Us Or Else: Letter To The System"

Updated on January 20, 2017
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T.I.'s Hungry, Abrasive and Purposeful Performances

‘Us Or Else: Letter To The System’ is an expanded version of a politically charged EP T.I. put out earlier in the year entitled, ‘Us Or Else’. The updated album boasts the previously-unleashed EP’s six tracks, alongside nine brand new efforts. Fifteen years after the release of his debut record, it’s satisfying to hear T.I. perform in a way that is challenging.

The 36-year-old Atlanta, Georgia rapper sounds hungry throughout ‘Us Or Else: Letter To The System’ - it's almost as if he’s found a new calling within what he does. Confidently addressing racial inequality and police brutality issues, T.I’s purposeful, abrasive energy enhances his performances. The rapper certainly puts his stamp on album opener ‘I Believe’, a track which refers to the Standing Rock pipeline and President Trump’s promised, immigrant resistant US-Mexico wall.

On top of all that, T.I. uses ‘I Believe’ to express his theory that Bob Marley and Malcolm X’s deaths were politically motivated. ‘Us Or Else: Letter To The System’ doesn’t expend much energy trying to appeal to listeners outside of the African-American community. While this may restrict the album’s reach, it does appear to benefit its numerous messages.

"Us Or Else: Letter To The System" Doesn't Hide Behind Pleasantries

Though the record is never mould-breaking, ‘Us Or Else: Letter To The System’ vents its raw opinions in a way that many of T.I.’s contemporaries haven’t. Well, not publicly anyway. In that sense, ‘Us Or Else: Letter To The System’ is bold. It’s an unflinching protest record. ‘Us Or Else: Letter To The System’ doesn’t attempt to hide its deep concerns and grievances behind pleasantries, it just lays them out there.

As a result, the record could very well ignite discussion and dispel stagnation around the topics it so vehemently highlights. The vocal clip attached onto the end of single ‘Warzone’ is certainly thought-provoking.

The record’s crop of breaking and relatively unknown artists help bring a ground-level, everyperson perspective to the project that T.I. (the Grammy Award-winning, multi-platinum selling international hip-hop star) cannot. They contribute a vigour that hasn’t yet been placated by the music industry, and there’s appeal in that. Their participation is also fairly crucial in authenticating the album’s attempts to speak for a section of the African-American community.

Left: Kevin Hart, Center: T.I.
Left: Kevin Hart, Center: T.I.

Taking Aim at Social Media

Co-starring Atlanta-based artists Translee and rapper/vocalist London Jae, ‘Letter To The System’ condenses the entire LP into a three-minute cut. Rapping about being pulled over by a policeman for a broken tail light (as well as the possibility of being shot dead by the same officer) T.I. spits, “it seems like there’s a green light, on anyone with my skin type.” Despite his outrage, the rapper doesn’t hesitate to pledge allegiance to his country on the tune.

While the non-invasive, understated grower ‘Ah No No’ takes aim at social media and those who overuse it, London Jae, east Atlanta’s RaRa, Florida-based rapper Tokyo Jetz and Jamaican reggae/dancehall deejay Lady G all come together for ‘Lazy’. Laced with smoky sax loops, the slow-burning trap cut celebrates the featured artists’ do or die work ethic. Admittedly, ‘Lazy’ sounds throwaway next to ‘Black Man’, which contains a superior run of substantial, sharp performances from T.I., Quavo, Meek Mill and RaRa.

Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body

Inspired by the belief that all pain is the sensation of weakness leaving the body, ‘Pain’ again features London Jae. Although ‘Pain’ operates over comparatively perky, contorted and playful production, it contains strong activist ideas. T.I. himself mentions an oncoming “revolution”, and London Jae speaks about “the movement” going ahead regardless of any opposition. ‘Pain’ expands on the rumbling, unforgiving trap of single ‘We Will Not’, a tune which resentfully responds to America’s fatal police brutality incidents.

Co-starring Californian musician Trev Case and Mississippi rapper/producer Big K.R.I.T, ‘Switchin’ Lanes’ is an unhurried, grissly trap tune enhanced by a standout, singalong hook from Case. It unpretentiously immerses listeners into T.I.'s lifestyle. ‘Switchin’ Lanes’ is underpinned by an easy-to-overlook piano loop that infuses the cut with a memorable haunted vibe.

The-Dream's Romantic Thrust Vs. T.I.'s Dogged Rap

The-Dream sings tenderly over the electro-lite/R&B beats of ‘Picture Me Mobbin’. The tune’s romantic thrust gels respectably with T.I.’s dogged rap lyrics. ‘Picture Me Mobbin’ pays tribute to the loved ones the twosome can’t physically be with, whether that’s due to the fact they’ve passed away or because they’re caught up in the prison system. A genuine sentimentality is communicated on ‘Picture Me Mobbin’. Plus, the breezy tune is easy to get on board with.

Killer Mike and Georgia’s B. Rossi clock in heated performances on ’40 Acres’, a cut that absolutely seethes with commentary. More dynamic than most of the songs on ‘Us Or Else: Letter To The System’, ’40 Acres’ condemns America’s slave trade and the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

T.I. Recalls His Humble Beginnings

Blessed by the authoritative, church-bound vocal stylings of Charlie Wilson, ‘Here We Go/Don't Fall For That’ is a two track event. On ’Here We Go’, T.I. recalls his humble beginnings, and strong desire to remove himself and his family away from them. The rapper remembers a time when he thought there was no way out of that situation apart from selling drugs. He then confesses to feeling the allure of that lifestyle today.

The twinkly, instantly melodic ‘Don’t Fall For That’ essentially responds those temptations by examining the long-term consequences of making money that way. The vintage soul and funk infused hip-hop production of ‘I Swear’ is meaty, warm and heavyweight. T.I. tackles the first half of ‘I Swear’ with total conviction. The rapper barely pauses for breath during his prolonged, forthright verse. Eventually though, T.I. swaps his lyrical onslaught for a serving of challenging, charismatic banter.

Verdict: ******* 7/10

Photo: Zach Wolfe
Photo: Zach Wolfe

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