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T.I. at Epic, 4/19/13

T.I. at Epic, 4/19/13
Photo by Tony Nelson

T.I. Epic, Minneapolis Friday, April 19, 2013

Some nights you walk into a club wondering if an MC is still relevant. Then you watch a 32-year-old pro blast through more than two dozen songs in a little more than an hour, flaunting a nimble flow and basking comfortably in the familiarity of his hits, and you forget all that online nattering about who's on top of the rap game and who's slipping. Then you walk out of the club wondering again whether that MC's still relevant.

The rapper in question is T.I., and after a few years of legal problems eating into his career he's at an awkward stage -- though too young to play elder statesman, he's competing with fresher rap newcomers for our attention. He sells records: His latest CD, Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head hit number one; maybe its sequel Trouble Man II: He Who Wears the Crown (due later this year) will too. And yet the Shakespearean and blaxploitation pretensions of those titles offer evidence of a guy desperately punching above his weight, like a Hollywood pretty boy losing his looks and overeager to graduate from teen sex romps and Kate Hudson vehicles to Oscar bait.

See Also: Slideshow: T.I. at Epic, 4/19/13

But at Epic Friday night, the youthful energy of T.I.'s back catalog temporarily rejuvenated him. Unquestioned skills aside, T.I. is hardly a particularly fearsome stage presence, and he tossed out only the most obligatory banter between songs to keep the crowd hyped. But it didn't take much to get them going when he led off with a trio of sure shots: the low-rolling Mannie Fresh production "Top Back," from his 2006 classic album, King, followed by two cuts from Trap Muzik, the gleeful "Rubberband Man" and the grim "24s."

T.I. at Epic, 4/19/13
T.I. at Epic, 4/19/13
Photos by Tony Nelson

The set was peppered with tracks T.I. had recently guested on -- Jay and Kanye's "Niggas in Paris," 2Chainz's "Spend It," Trinidad James' "All Gold," B.O.B.'s "We Still in This Bitch," and Drake's "Started from the Bottom." Maybe there was an element of resume-padding to this, a slightly too-insistent reminder of the elite company T.I. travels in, consisting of both up-and-comers and hip-hop establishment. But the tracks made his case: T.I. remains a musical force in 2013.

His own newer material was less successful in supporting that claim. T.I. limited himself to only the most club-friendly tracks from his latest album, which spared us the one where Akon sings part of Elton John's "Your Song" and the one that where Netta Brielle sings part of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Still nobody was there to hear "Go Get It" -- or if they were, they'd forgotten that once they heard "Bring Em Out."

The show had its promotional side as well, with T.I. calling his warm-up act Travi$ Scott back out onstage to perform "Upper Echelon" mid-set. T.I. signed the Houston rapper signed to his Grand Hustle label as part of his Hustle Gang, a fact T.I. wasn't shy about repeatedly sharing.   A club show didn't prove the best setting for T.I. to display any rhyme finesse. Not for any sort of subtlety, actually -- the gracious free-spending fantasy of "Whatever U Like" came off as rushed and glib. But bursts of snide confidence like "You Don't Know Me" sounded right at home, sparking a roomful of communal shout-alongs.

T.I. at Epic, 4/19/13
Photo by Tony Nelson

The set wound down with a pair of hater-resistant anthems, "Hello" and "Live Your Life" before T.I. finally pulled off his shirt and ripped into "What You Know." Then, just after the lights came up at 2, the hyperactive "Ball" made it sound like the party was just starting. And anyone worried about T.I.'s relevance should note that "Ball" isn't an oldie. Critic's Notebook:

Personal Bias: Much as I respect and enjoy Trap Muzik and King, I'd hoped that Paper Trail, which some fans thought too pop, offered T.I. an interesting direction. So far, I've pretty much been wrong about that.

The Crowd: Women, in pairs or in groups, in outfits that snugly accentuated those parts of their bodies in which they took particular pride and displayed a weather-inappropriate amount of skin.

Overheard in the Crowd: "This is some bullshit that the men can wear gym shoes and the women have to wear heels."

Random Notebook Dump: Chief Keef's anti-snitching, anti-social, just plain anti- "I Don't Like" is still the best way for a DJ to get a huge crowd response at a rap show.

Setlist:

1. "Top Back" 2. "Rubberband Man" 3. "24s" 4. "G Season" 5. "Niggas in Paris" 6. "Spend It" 7. "All Gold" 7. "Upper Echelon" 8. "We Still in This Bitch" 9. "Live This Life" 10. "U Don't Know Me" 11. "Freak Though" 12. "Why You Wanna" 13. "Whatever You Like" 14. "Bring 'Em Out" 15. "Go Get It" 16. "Addresses" 17. "What Up, What's Haapnin'" 18. "Trap Back Jumpin" 19. "ASAP" 20. "Started from the Bottom" 21. "Hello" 22. "Live Your Life" 23. "What You Know" 24. "Ball"


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