Run It Back is a retrospective review of a classic or game-changing hip-hop releases whose style and sound still resonate with listeners in the modern, streaming-driven era. Hip-hop has always been a forward-facing, youth-oriented culture, but it’s also deeply informed by the past. This is our way of bridging the gap, paying homage to rap’s roots while exploring how they still hold relevance today.
If you’re a rap fan and have been online at any time within the current week, you’ve probably seen that the current topic tearing apart the Twitter hip-hop commentariat is one of ownership. Specifically, factions have sprung up around recent comments made by well-established Atlanta trap rappers Gucci Mane and T.I., who each claim to have invented the “trap” subgenre of rap music which the city has become known for.
While it’s arguable which current representative of the flourishing subculture is most responsible for its invention (that would actually be Dungeon Family member Cool Breeze, with “Watch For The Hook” from his 1999 debut East Point’s Greatest Hits), its naming (Outkast’s Andre 3000 may have been the first to coin the phrase “trap” to mean “place one sells illegal pharmaceuticals” on 1998’s “SpottieOttieDopalicious” from the classic Aquemini) or its popularization, there’s no denying that T.I. was the first to name an entire album after the then-nascent subcategory.
2003’s Trap Muzik was T.I.’s second full-length album and his first under a joint venture with Atlantic Records and his then newly-founded Grand Hustle label. It was by no means the first rap album centered on the culture of illicit drug sales, but it was the album that pioneered many of the genre’s central tenets: Plainspoken, highly-detailed personal accounts of adventures in and around the trap house, the plights of the American impoverished, and the pitfalls of the game, all recounted from the perspective of a homegrown Atlantan pill pitchman who says it as a matter of pure survival.
In a 2012 interview with Stereogum, T.I. explained the impetus behind both the genre and his infamously-titled album. “Whether you in the trap selling dope, in the trap buying dope, or in the trap trying to get out, it’s informative for people who don’t know nothing about that side of life,” he said. Expanding on that idea for his Atlantic debut, he further clarified to RapIndustry.com that “maybe it can help them deal with these people, help them relate to these people, help them understand, help them to see their point of view a little better.”
Of Trap Muzik‘s darker outlook on its murky underworld subject matter, he said, “Before, trappin’ was cool, but now trappin’ ain’t cool. It’s necessary for some, but no, it ain’t cool – even if you a hustler. All the hustlers I know – sellin’ dope is the last thing they wanna do.” That’s illustrated in tracks like the prophetic “T.I. Vs. T.I.P.,” which depicts the internal conflict between doing what’s “necessary” despite knowing it’s wrong every that trapper goes through, literally as a conversation between two alter egos debating from either side of the schism. It’s a conceit he’d return to for his fifth studio album of the same name in 2007.
Built over a mournful, Kanye West-produced track sampling “I’m Just Doin’ My Job” by Bloodstone, “Doin’ My Job” is filled with regret at the moral compromises of living the trap life. He pleads with the listener to give some thought to his plight by humanizing the young people for whom the trap has become a last resort:
“Really we rather be rich and famous
But in the mean time were forced to slang dust
‘Dro or crack cocaine, Penicillin to Rogaine
Ecstacy, Viagra, whatever’ll get the dough mayne…
We got lives, we wanna live nice too
We got moms, dads, wives, kids just like you
But our options are few, it’s hell in high school
When your helping with the rent lights and the gas bill too
So before you go judging us loving us won’t hurt
When you’re under 25, staying alive’s hard work”
Even the celebratory singles like “Rubber Band Man” and “24’s” contain a frisson of the regret and paranoia that accompany the life of fast money and flashy excess. “Went down, did 10, back round and rich again / That’s why I’m young with the soul of an old man / I’m shell-shocked, get shot, slow your roll, man,” he warns on the former, the boast sounding as much like a confession as a flex.
While the sounds created by producers like DJ Toomp, David Banner, and Kanye would be utterly unrecognizable as the modern definition of trap rap today with the triumphant synth horns and chopped soul samples that defined the 2000s leading the way, those distinctive snare rolls can be heard throughout, sowing the scattered seeds of the eventual evolution of the trap sound. Nowadays, the genre has become murky, with gurgling synth leads, rumbling basslines and as many references to drug use as drug sales, but the DNA is intact, if nearly unrecognizable under the natural buoyancy of the mid-aughts sounds. The closest analog might by Toomp’s synth-heavy production style, but his beats would go through several transitions of their own before coming anywhere near resembling the work of Zaytoven, Metro Boomin, Southside, or TM88.
There are more moments of levity as well, like the Jazze Pha-produced “Let’s Get Away,” which finds T.I. playing the Don Juan rather than the Scarface over an almost joyous organ loop. Likewise, even the singles highlight T.I.’s focus on lyricism, which can be heard in even greater detail on “No More Talk” where he stacks syllables like the bricks of cocaine and rubber-banded profits from his criminal enterprise. “Be Easy” likewise displays T.I.’s gift for cleverly flipping rhymes in hypnotic patterns to show off his “flow so insane, lyrics sick and deranged.” You’d be hard-pressed to find such serious-minded wordplay from today’s more moody, melodically-inclined representatives of trap music, although Migos’ Takeoff seems to be having a lot of fun being the exception.
Trap Muzik is, for better or worse, one of the first albums to codify the slick talk of pharmaceutical salesmen like UGK and 8Ball & MJG (both of whom guest here on “Bezzle“), but it’s almost too far removed from the modern incarnation of the genre to hold anything more than an ancestral relation. Call it the velociraptor to Future and Young Thug‘s bald eagles; it’s educational to note the first recognizable branch on the evolutionary tree, but it’s got about as much in common with modern trap as the Apple I does with an iPhone X.
That doesn’t stop it from being a classic. It certainly spawned its fair share of imitators and competitors and is an undeniable influence on the sound, direction, and mainstream reach of drug tale-peddling ex-pushers who realized that rapping about the struggle meant taking fewer penitentiary chances in the effort to leave it behind. That it gave a name to a whole subgenre of hip-hop is beside the point. In crafting Trap Muzik, T.I. laid down a fascinating, entertaining blueprint for multiple generations seeking to leave the trap behind.