"Be the change that you wish to see in the world." The quote has become somewhat of a pithy platitude, but it was once part of a worldview so radical it earned Gandhi bullets for his pains. It's still a hell of a code to live by, and no words seem to better to sum up the radical change T.I. presented to the world on Us or Else EP released Sept. 23. The rapper words the maxim a little differently on "Lane Switchin'": "Make sure what you ride for/ Is somethin' you would die for."
The EP is a lane switch for the rapper, who credits himself as the creator of trap music. T.I. has essentially built his career upon stories of "gats, girls and makin' green," as HipHopDX summed up in a review of his very first project. That was 15 years ago, before the urgency of this moment in history encouraged him to pass an unexpectedly self-critical lens over his past.
"Hell ya, say money, hoes, cars, clothes/ What my life was all about but that's before I thought about it," he raps in a key line on "I Swear." "What the world would be like when my daughter 25/ Would I prevent or contribute to my grandson dyin'?"
However, the project feels like more than a bandwagon jump at a time when hip-hop of all varieties seems intent on digging up the genre's political roots. It's still T.I. He still brings ice-cold charisma and sardonic punchlines that helped make him the icon he is today.
"You have to be just as entertaining as educational if you plan on making this a business," T.I. explained in a recent interview, discussing the album and the direction its taken his career. "I'm not completely abandoning my trap music whatsoever. I just felt compelled in this moment in time to use my talents to deliver these messages."
Inspiration for the project started bubbling back in June, after the Alton Sterling shooting — and the unrest that followed — placed police violence back in the national spotlight.
"It started with protesting, just try to find different ways to mobilize, have meetings of the minds here in the community," T.I. said. It wasn't long before the discussions began to bleed into his work.
"Because I'm always recording and always in the studio, I thought about like: 'You looking at the videos and going to protest at night?'" he said. "'Why can't you use your influence to deal with subjects of importance and the actions of the day?' So it just kinda started to happen."
The songs came easily, the rapper said, and he never felt at a loss for what to say next. It makes sense. The verses effortlessly string the most pressing developments in the movement for black lives into revolutionary streams of consciousness. "See what happen when athletes'll no longer play for you," T.I. raps on "We Will Not," nodding to the ongoing national anthem protests. "Tell them accountants to pray for you/ On respect or just respect what that paper'll do ... Turnin' them profits to loss/ When we won't go shop in the mall."
The project showcases voices from all corners of hip-hop, from elder statesmen of political rap like Killer Mike, to young MCs like Meek Mill and Migos' Quavo. The latter names aren't known for making explicitly political music, but including their voices felt necessary for T.I.
"They're out in the streets a lot more than us, you know what I mean," T.I. said. "They're probably the ones that are bearing the brunt of the way things are. You don't have to be as 'socially conscious' as anyone else in order to have an opinion" — or to have experienced discrimination at the hands of police.
Quavo's lyrics on "Black Man" ask the key questions that seem to reemerge following every incidents of police violence: "Is it because of my people?" Quavo sings. "Is it because of my sneakers?/ Is it because of my jersey?/ It is because that you nervous?"
Later, he flips that moment into an affirmation of self-love reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar's "i," Beyoncé's "Formation" and so many of the most powerful protest tracks of the past year: "It is because that I'm perfect?" With T.I.'s guidance, Quavo has officially entered the protest canon.
Getting diverse voices into the movement is vital, T.I. claims, as it it affects us all. "If you say you're America and this is what America stands for, that means this is what you stand for," T.I. says.
He talks about going abroad and hearing people say: "'Oh ya you guys [let people in power] just kill people and nothing happens,'" T.I. paraphrased. "Is that how you would like to be viewed as American citizen?"
"This nation of ours is supposed to stand for something greater, and right now it's sucking pretty bad," T.I. said. "If you want that continue, sit down, ignore and do absolutely nothing, things are probably going to get worse."
Hence the change, hence using his talents to speak to the bullshit. But you don't need to have an audience of millions in order to help push the culture forward, as the artist made clear.
"If you want to do something about it, you've got to press politicians," he said. "And I don't just mean presidential — I'm talking about councilmen and senators to make sure the proper laws pass, so we can have some justice on the other hand."