T.I.'s 'KING' Is Still a Masterpiece, 10 Years Later
An appreciation of one of the best rap albums released this millennium.
This week marks the 10th anniversary of T.I.’s landmark fourth studio album KING. The Atlanta rapper’s album debuted at #1 on the Billboard album charts and charted 3 major Hot 100 singles. It was Tip’s great crossover statement: He became both a pop star as well as the South’s most important rapper of that moment. With T.I. making his first foray into acting that year in [Chris Robinson](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ChrisRobinson(director)’s Hollywood debut ATL at the same time, KING only solidified the impression that T.I. was going to be around for a while. Today, the 17-song collection sounds even better, transporting listeners back to one of Southern hip-hop’s most glorious moments of cultural and commercial dominance.
Corban Goble: Even with the context surrounding T.I.’s late-career misfires, increasingly strange adventures and unfortunate alliances, KING is a tour de force that makes anything you’re hearing now sound flimsy. I’m only including the context because, the thought of trying to size up KING on its own, in a vacuum, is something I can’t possibly wrap my mind around and I’m not even going to try to. It’s like “how do you feel about the invention of penicillin?” or something. What is there to even say?! The first three songs on this are like, typhoon-level and I’m not at all sure it’s the best run on the album. Do you guys have favorite moments from the album?
Winston Cook-Wilson: The opening run certainly signals immediately that this is no average studio rap album, and the beginning of a new phase for T.I. Coming off harder-nosed, brittler albums like Trap Muzik and Urban Legend (both also great, by the way), KING delivered a more pop-oriented and globalized rap sound — also, more expensive. This didn’t trip Tip up, like it would a lot of Southern rappers who tended to do better when they weren’t trying to switch up feels or work around R&B hooks (see Jeezy, Boosie). The introspective down-tempo stuff (“Live In the Sky,” “Hello”) and romance jams (the sleek “Why You Wanna” s easily top 3 on the album for me) all more than work; there’s really nothing skippable here.
“Front Back” speaks to me in a special way. In general, my favorite thing about T.I. as an artist is how simultaneously precise and malleable his flow is. Even on his most grating, later songs, he knows how to pitch his voice, and pick a catchy rhythmic snippet to play with across a verse. Unlike a lot of modern trap rappers, he doesn’t pick a rhythm or melody and just restate it a million times; he just uses a kind of unforgettable central rhythm to loosely anchor everything he does in a verse.
The original kings of this style in the South were UGK, so “Front Back” is a perfect disciple-meets-master team-up. It’s a solid companion piece to Bun and Pimp’s ageless “Int’l Players Anthem” of the next year on any playlist. For as much as KING is all about the past, present and future of Atlanta, a lot of the album has that controlled but slumped feel that was Houston’s legacy originally. Meanwhile, the song has a Mannie Fresh beat, so you have one of the most important figures in the history of New Orleans rap filling out the picture. ���Front Back” is like a mini-Olympics opening ceremonies of Southern rap styles.
Erika Ramirez: I think KING was T.I.’s introduction to mainstream, especially with “Why You Wanna.” While I love Trap Muzik and Urban Legend (especially), those were still a little too rough around the edges to be digested by the masses at the time of release. KING has a great mixture of hits: “Top Back,” “Front Back,” to the heartfelt “Hello.” It was laced with the perfect amount of realness — content and collaboration wise — and, well, fun. He delivered a Southern rap album that reached beyond city limits, but wasn’t too much or forced. You can play KING front to back, without a skip, to this day. As I’m writing this I’m realizing that it’s very much a mood album also, seeing the producers Tip recruited. Each song gives you a different feel. Also, we really saw Pharrell and T.I.’s sonic chemistry in KING. Wait, good God, “What You Know” is impeccable. Talk about chemistry, DJ Toomp and T.I. always deliver.
CG: The sound on this record is still borderline unbelievable. It’s just so huge and reverent and bringing in so many different Southern regional styles in a cohesive and coherent way. There’s not a ton of features, per se, but all of them are memorable. “Bankhead,” for fuck’s sake. It feels like, to me, that both the production and the vocals achieve a balance that is rarely reconstructed in the modern landscape; arguable, but usually it’s one way or another in terms of the more conventional, major label releases of the present. Of course I just so happened to be in college when this came out, and of course music was never greater than the four years when you were in college, but even now KING soars and stands as a monument of rap touching the mainstream. What about this album is something you always go back to?
ER: We should mention the release of ATL that was around this time. Wow, didn’t realize (or remember) that they both debuted in March 2006. I think it helped push KING even more forward. My favorite moment is in the beginning of “Front Back,” T.I. introducing the album and then segues into a collaborative song that really needs no introduction because of how smooth it flows. It was a ‘if you don’t know, now you know’ moment. I agree with Winston on how “Front Back” is a perfect “disciple-meets-master team-up.” The collaboration of UGK and T.I. on a Mannie Fresh beat covers all influential soundscapes and cities. Dream team.
WCW: “Bankhead” is both like the ideal Southern rap posse cut and also one of the best classical-music-flavored rap beats I’ve ever heard, with the weird chord changes and choir. “What You Know,” which it’s kind of hilarious we didn’t just start with here, is one of the best rap singles of the decade. One thing I’ve been appreciating recently, on the grander scale, is how many unlikely things T.I. make work across the non-singles tracks. My favorite example is probably “You Know Who”: Travis Barker playing way too loud over a Solomon Burke sample? Sure, why not?
The consistency was definitely short-lived; on every subsequent T.I. album, inevitably, there’s plenty to toss out. Of course, it must be difficult after you’ve effectively made one of your decade’s platonic examples of Great Rap Album. I don’t think anything else touched KING that year for me in terms of major hip-hop releases, even Fishscale and Hell Hath No Fury, both of which were also formative for me.
CG: One time I was interviewing a rapper and we started talking about KING and before you know it we had hit the allotted time for the interview. I basically had to call back and be like, “Hey uhhh we probably should talk about your record.” I feel like that is this album for a lot of people, fans and artists alike.
I’m about to get #SPORTS, but I’ll do it fast! Twins catcher Joe Mauer has walked up to “What You Know” since it came out, and for whatever reason I find that to be a perfect expression of that song. It’s swagger incarnate: you have this big organ loop just screaming from the speakers mounted above a pro sport, washing over thousands of people. Somehow the song is bigger than all of it. I’ll never get tired of that.