Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit a pivotal album in the history of Atlanta and rap itself.
Before Atlanta’s Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway was named after an attorney from the Civil Rights era, its namesake was Alabama Senator John H. Bankhead, “Father of Good Roads.” Bankhead Highway, as it was then known, snaked from Memphis to Tupelo, to Birmingham, to Atlanta. It was functionally an interstate, but Atlantans took a special liking to the name.
For a nearly seven-mile stretch from the west bank of the Chattahoochee River to the edge of Atlanta’s city center, Bankhead Highway was more than a thoroughfare. Bankhead, as the corridor is unofficially and affectionately known (even after the renaming of its main street), comprises churches and seafood markets, salons and package stores. Abstract graffiti and homely murals coat the sides of crumbling buildings, demolished projects sit in frustrating stasis, poverty and prosperity live in startling proximity, and outsiders rarely mention the area fondly—but Bankhead is a community. Sprawling yet connected, industrial yet residential, hobbled but bouncing along, Bankhead is a neighborhood by virtue of collective imagination, pride, and struggle.
Drug dealing and hustling took a young T.I. down Bankhead and across it, over fences and between jobs, away from poverty but closer to peril. Trap Muzik is a record of those sprawling experiences and their compression into one life, one man. During a recent tour of Morehouse University with his college-age son, T.I. stumbled upon a strange revelation. “The trap house was my Morehouse. It was a group of brothers, and we showed up, challenged each other’s ideas, and supported one another,” he declared.
The origin of trap music has recently been disputed, as “trap” has become a muddled omni-label that describes 808s and hi-hats alone. T.I. has sought to end the discussion. Just as he believes he singularly elevated Atlanta’s streets, T.I. claims he invented trap music with this album. “August 19th, 2003 Birth of Trap Muzik & Only fools dispute facts,” he wrote on Instagram in response to Gucci Mane’s claim as the father of trap. T.I. certainly predates Gucci, but Atlanta at the turn of the millennium and before had too many drug dealers turned rappers and producers to take this claim seriously. And that’s fine. Just as John Bankhead didn’t invent Bankhead, T.I. didn’t invent trap music. But in his open embrace of the trap’s spirit on Trap Muzik, and living of its ethos, and bearing of its scars, he made it vivid and relatable. It’s only right that he’s taken a special liking to it.
In the late ’90s, T.I. (born Clifford Harris) was a barber and dope boy brimming with Bankhead pride. Rap had been a part of his life since he was a kid, but so had hustling, and it took years of losses and setbacks before music became his focus. He had a father figure in Uncle Quint, who received a 10-year sentence on drug charges. Then, P$C (Pimp $quad Clique), a group of neighborhood friends, experienced the death of one member alongside the murder conviction of another; they ended up shelving their finished album. T.I. remained active in the streets, but his trajectory was clear. “Why all my partners gotta be dead or in the feds for?” he’d rap a few years later, hinting at his own grim odds.
His pivot to rap did eventually lead him out of the trenches, but it was a bittersweet victory. His first album, I’m Serious, released in 2001, was a critical and commercial non-factor. T.I. blamed the poor performance on a lack of support from his label Arista. Labelhead L.A. Reid, a lauded R&B producer turned label exec, was perplexed by T.I.’s frequent mention of the trap. “L.A. didn’t get it,” recalled producer DJ Toomp. “[He] was like, ‘What the hell is a trap?’” Concentrating Arista’s efforts on larger acts like OutKast and P!nk, Reid refused to shoot a video for sleeper hit “Dope Boyz,” among other slights. T.I. speaks bitterly about his experience at Arista to this day, but I’m Serious also was a weak showing artistically. His zippy flows and generic pimp raps obscured his charisma and crowded out his storytelling and swagger. He embodied Bankhead but didn’t evoke it. He didn’t make that mistake again.
Soured by Arista’s neglect, T.I. terminated his contract and went independent, cranking out mixtapes on his homespun Grand Hustle label he started with his manager Jason Geter. Hawking original and repackaged songs with a reformed P$C as the mixtape series In Da Streets, Grand Hustle promoted its artists directly to the streets. The circumstances of this independence and the underground success of “Dope Boyz” emboldened T.I. to turn the trap into his cause célèbre. As Jermaine Dupri welcomed the world to Atlanta’s parties, In Da Streets took listeners beyond the city’s storied strip clubs and swank lounges. On “In Da A” T.I. makes the contrast explicit: “I know ya heard a lot/And probably seen a little/It’s more to the A than what you hear from JD and them.”
T.I. recorded most of Trap Muzik in a studio housed in the back of a hair salon, removed from the machinations of the music industry and embedded in the community. He saw the South as his kingdom, but nothing meant more to him than winning over Atlanta, his province. “Our main intention with this album was to make sure we represented the walks of life, the generation, the region, the circle, the society,” he recalled a decade later. “I felt like I had a responsibility to step out and show cats from the Northeast that there’s other people down here, other lifestyles, other stories besides Organized Noize and So So Def...I felt like we were being underserved.”
His perception was skewed given the vast range of artists and skills housed under both Atlanta camps and across the South. From Lil Jon’s rowdy crunk revitalizing Memphis buck, to Ludacris’ dirtbag sex raps channeling Miami bass, to OutKast’s ubiquitous stank, the city and the region were thriving. But in that yearning to wrest the spotlight from the city’s headliners, to put Bankhead on the map, T.I. found his voice. Street in its swagger yet personal in its spirit, Trap Muzik turned T.I.’s need to represent into an anthemic portrait of surviving poverty. Trap Muzik presents the trap as not just a setting or a sound or a state of mind, but as a portal into the self.
Trapping taught T.I. that he was both cunning and in over his head, and he spends the album detailing his dicey odds. The title track parachutes the listener right into the middle of a dope spot, where T.I. and fellow P$C member Mac Boney post up defiantly despite a trickle of customers and lurking feds. Then T.I. quickly flips the script. “12!” he shouts as cops appear and a brief skit of a foot chase plays over a beat shift. By the time he’s hopped a fence, the bounce is gone, and a cloud of bells and minor keys drifts in over slowed percussion. “Shawty still in the trap,” T.I. scoffs, irked but undeterred.
That ambivalence proves to be one of T.I.’s greatest strengths. He often establishes a mood then undercuts it, within both songs and song sequences. “Be Easy” uses a disarming calm to seek peace; it’s followed by the fiery “No More Talk,” which welcomes conflict. On “Doin’ My Job,” T.I. touts his entire stock of narcotics then makes an impassioned defense of drug dealers’ work ethic. “We got lives, we wanna live nice too/We got moms, dads, wives, kids, just like you,” he protests to the residents of the neighborhood where he works. By “Let’s Get Away,” he’s so burned out from trapping he needs a dope boy’s vacation—“a room on the other side of town” with a lover. These pivots create a panorama of experiences. T.I. doesn’t just set the scene, he world-builds, depicting the trap as three-dimensional and dynamic, a shifting space of stress, surveillance, action, and reflection. “This whole album is filled with music dealing with all aspects of that lifestyle. Whether you in the trap, trying to get out the trap, or just living around the trap. Whether you want inspiration or information, I got you,” he told an interviewer in 2003.
Within all this flux, T.I. takes immense pride in his obsession with his craft. He raps in full embrace of his Southern drawl, rounding his vowels, slowing his flows, and using his lilt to glide through syllables with grace. On “Be Easy” he raps “I’m so fly, no lie/Don’t deny it, ya felt/So inspired by my style, decided to try it ya self,” stringing the rhymes together by riding the rhythm of his accent. The pace and ease of his delivery nearly obscure the penmanship; he sounds like he’s talking.
Turning on the charm for “Let Me Tell You Something,” he constructs another slick sequence: “But anyway/When I see yo face/I’m thinking three or fo’ days in Montego Bay.” These moments often go unnoticed, but their frequency belied T.I.’s twin goals of being respected and being distinct. He sought to best East Coast purists and to bewitch them, and was willing to adopt their conventions even as he broke with them. “Y’all ain’t never seen a dope boy rap and play the piano at the same time,” he taunts on “Be Easy.”
His collaborators leveled-up alongside him. Graduating from their undermixed contributions to the In Da Streets mixtapes on Trap Muzik, producers San (Chez) Holmes and DJ Toomp inject their productions with flair and husk. Percussive but buoyant, their compositions wobble as much as they knock, the sounds hitting then rolling, like a bowling ball dropped in water. Toomp’s skittering drum patterns on “24’s” dance around a muscular modulated string melody, creating pockets of counter-rhythm that complement T.I.’s drawl. As T.I. stretches and elongates his words, a downbeat is there to catch and propel his subtle pauses. When working with Toomp, T.I. doesn’t have to rap about cornbread or yams to prove he’s a Southerner because the beats are made to fit a Southern cadence.
Chez’s productions rely on swing rather than bounce. Arranging his percussion more conventionally than Toomp, his hi-hats and snares tick like a metronome, but his bass riffs and streaks of organ and guitar generate a breezy sway. T.I. can turn introspective on Chez tracks, and that spacious, slow-winding production is key. “Kingofdasouth” is nominally an extended boast, but you can feel T.I.’s ego swell as his mythos becomes his creed. “I’m the king ‘cause I said it and I mean that shit,” he raps with gusto.
David Banner, Kanye West, Nick Fury, and Jazze Pha round out the production, and T.I.’s compatibility with their varying styles is key to his vision of the trap. “Even if you were participating in felonious activities,” he explained in an interview, “there were still other things you needed to deal with: You’re not just drug dealing but also dealing with a relationship with your parents, your girlfriend, having a child too young and being looked down on by society as one thing, when you’re actually much more than that definition. You might have had a homeboy who just died, but he wasn’t even in the streets like that!” The sprawl was the point.
Toomp’s drum patterns and 808 kicks would later be dissected and riffed on by later generations of Southern producers like Shawty Redd, Zaytoven, and Drumma Boy. They would become shorthand for the trap aesthetic, despite nearly all of Trap Muzik’s producers using those same elements (as well as contemporary producers in Atlanta and New Orleans, like Mannie Fresh and OutKast, drawing from the same well). But T.I. was the centerpiece of the sound and the concept. He was not the first Southern rapper to find his voice and his audience in the streets and clubs. But his innovation was to insist that the dangers and glories of those streets and clubs were indivisible. His 24-inch rims and rubber-band banks were badges and scars. T.I. lived for Bankhead and in spite of it—it broke him, shaped him, and set him free.