How to sell a contradiction–that was the quandry mainstream rap confronted in the ’00s. With thuggery grown intractable and “consciousness” unsaleable, the thinking MC was called upon to reconcile the genre’s conventional violence, materialism, and sexism with the commands of his conscience, to embody these contradictions, grapple with them, at the very least acknowledge them. And yet, with the exception of Kanye, whose own best intentions paved a road to jerkoffery soon enough, contemporary MCs weren’t particularly equipped to make art out of this struggle.
Exhibit A: David Banner, a minor critic’s darling for a quick minute there. A college grad and hood philanthropist with a good line on the failed promise of the Great Migration, Banner stomped across his tracks as “A thug ass nigga/ Wit bad table manners.” So stated Lil Flip, in a description more memorable than any Banner himself ever provided, on the charmless “Like a Pimp.” As a producer, Banner displayed a sure hand at crunk mechanics, but his writing never kept pace. Sometimes his anger manifested itself as rage, sometimes as sullenness, but in neither case did lyrics match oomph.
Exhbit B: T.I., aka T.I.P., who has on several occasions, squared the one persona off against the other, in an attempt to freshen up the long-familiar tale of dealer-turned-rhymer and prove he wasn’t just a pretty face with a quick lip. His first big hit, “Rubberband Man,” consists of a simple stadium-organ hook worked up by Banner and a “nah nah-nah-nah” children’s chorus. T.I. strains against this simplicity. The rubber band on his wrist, we’re told, “represents the struggle, man” — reminds him, that is, of his not-so-distant crack-slinging past — and also referred to the elasticity of his flow. T.I. had enough rough charm to diss his critics while yet seeming above it all, enough rash confidence to get away with the boast “wild as the Taliban,” enough blithe ignorance to trumpet himself as the Rubberband Man and not sample (or, if money’s an issue, just mention) the Spinners. In other words, what makes the track so exciting is that it vaults right over any contradictions.