Monday, December 14, 2009

Hip Hop's Double Consciousness by Regina Barnett

"I’m the dude playing a dude played by another dude" –Robert Downey, Jr., "Tropic Thunder"

I spent my Thanksgiving break trappin’. Yes folks, I had T.I.’s Trap Muzik (2003) on full blast marinating and negotiating ideas about gender politics and identity in rap music. And T.I. was my main subject. Clifford “T.I.” Harris is no newbie to the game, quickly closing in on a nearly ten year stint as one of THE emcees in Hip Hop Music. While many critics reflect on specific slivers of his identity, I’ve always wondered about the man as a whole. A former dope boy in the trap and a full time corporate hustler, Harris has performed in both ends of the black masculinity spectrum. And, in similar fashion to other men of color who attempt to negotiate or even establish a gray area of masculine existence, T.I. got lost in the hustle.

The 2007 shooting death of Harris’ best friend Philant “Big Phil” ‘Johnson triggered a violent emotional response within the rapper. The by product of that rage and grief was T.I. vs. T.I.P. (2007). Almost immediately following the release of T.I. vs. T.I.P. Harris was charged with illegal gun possession. On the album, Harris displays a nearly schizophrenic reaction to his place in society and lack of control over the internal rage slowly seeping out of his seams. He re-divides himself into two dueling personas, each trying to cope with the death of Johnson and their success.

French theorist Jacques Lacan’s fragmented body theory provides useful insight into understanding Harris’ triple personality (Harris, T.I., and T.I.P.). Lacan suggests that the psyche splits itself into a main and “alienating personality” after a “certain level of aggressive disintegration in the individual.” The agitation of Johnson’s death and Harris’ inability to relay his grief forces T.I.P. re-emerge. T.I.P. considers himself raw, real, and confrontational. Because of his inability to discuss his traumatic experience, Harris regresses back into a trap boy, a familiar and recognized coping mechanism for him to explore the suppressed anxiety he experiences.

Due to the lack of available discourse for Harris to vent, T.I.P. embodies the reaction to and consequences of that underlying anger and guilt. He sees himself as coping with Harris’ traumatic experiences through angry tirades at the beginning of the album. T.I.P. attempts to voice his concerns and feelings of displacement – “Man I ain’t up for this shit/I lost my partner and lost my life homes/ Man fuck this shit I’m done.” The urgency and angst in Harris’ delivery here suggests his dissatisfaction with his career and the expectations placed upon him. He is no longer suiting his own needs and interests but is being tugged by Atlantic records and, more specifically, the CEO of Warner Music Group (WMG) Lyor Cohen. WMG owns Atlantic Records.

In a heated exchange between Cohen and T.I.P., Cohen tries to intimidate him back to a subservient role – “listen kid don’t play with my muthafuckin’ money” – with little impact. Cohen’s threat attempts to speak to Harris on a presumed and understood level of hood discourse or trap speak where the primary language is money. T.I.P. quickly fires back with a threat of his own, telling Cohen to “get it like the Red Cross” and hangs up. The allusion to the Red Cross, a symbol of aid in the face of disaster, speaks on two levels.

The first level is a physical threat of violence and the second is a threat of leaving Atlantic altogether for lack of consent to T.I.P’s demands. He believes his abandonment of the label and this latest rap project would cause an economic disaster for Atlantic Records. The tracks that follow the opening skit on T.I. vs. T.I.P. suggest a return to the trap discourse heard in I’m Serious and Trap Muzik. This throwback to Harris’ trap days suggests not only T.I.P.’s familiarity and comfort within the trap setting but also the days that Johnson was still alive. It is especially prominent in many of the songs in Act I including “Da Dopeman,” “Raw,” and “Hurt.”

What is fascinating about this album is T.I.’s unconsciousness about T.I.P.’s actions. In the opening skit of the next segment of the album “Act II: T.I.,” Harris awkwardly wakes up and is unsure of his previous actions. He notices his car parked in a different location and a host of urgent voicemails accusing him of “losing his damn mind.” Dazed and in denial about the conflict with Cohen, T.I. pleads his innocence about the previous night’s events with friends Jason Geter and Douglas Peterson. T.I.’s understanding of not only the hierarchy of the record label but the need for the label to support his endeavors is shown throughout the exchanges between Harris and the record executives. He represents Harris’ understanding of his brand.

Mark Anthony Neal suggests that branding solely exists within the framework of extremities seen within the performance of one’s identity. “What branding doesn’t help illuminate is the extent that the candidate and the thug(s) are dependent upon each other to lay claim to that which their brand doesn’t – and, quite frankly, can’t – allow,” Neal notes. Within the manufactured space of Atlantic Records/Warner Music Group, T.I. can not let T.I.P. interfere with the delicate balance of power and creative authority. Furthermore, T.I. and Harris in this instance cannot be in one accord or agreement with T.I.P. because Harris has to keep his desires (both commercial and personal) within the constraints of his signature brand as two distinct and accepted identities. Any sense of harmony or peaceful coexistence (which, prior to the breakout success of Urban Legend, somewhat existed) would not only throw off our understanding of Harris as a rapper, but also problematize the implications surrounding the performance of his manhood .

Track fifteen (15) is a vicious confrontation between T.I. and T.I.P. Their medium is the mirror, symbolizing only the commonality of the physical body between both personalities. Lacan poses the mirror as a symbol of an innate understanding of self. One molds himself based upon the perception in the mirror. In the initial exchange, there is a noticeable and distinctive difference between the narratives of T.I. and T.I.P. T.I. presents himself as Harris’ logic, the accepted representative of Harris as the socially functioning member of American society.

T.I.P., through his rage, presents the suppressed and illegitimate portrayal of Harris – the criminally minded and explicit black man. He forces Harris to confront not only Johnson’s death, “do you think I meant for that shit to muthafuckin’ happen?!” but also why he feels T.I.P. is illegitimate to his commercial success, “Man T.I.P., you’d get us locked up every chance you get if I let you.” T.I.P. responds with an explosive reaction of expletives and defends his actions: “If you let me? You see what I’m saying man/how the fuck you gon’ let me do something?!” Not only is T.I.P. angry over being marginalized by social expectations, he is furious over T.I.’s belittling of his efforts. Through T.I.P.’s tirade T.I. weakly responds with “why you gotta take it like that?” accenting a thwarted attempt to distance himself from T.I.P. and questioning his own logic.

The line that most resonates in the skit is T.I.P.’s remark “Naw I don’t know everything/but I know bullshit when I see it” and his referral to T.I. as a “Hollywood nigga in a suit.” The act of performance here is negative and T.I.P. blasts T.I. for catering to that expectation. Not only is he referring to T.I. as bullshit, but also the mirage presented by him that success does not come without a sacrifice of self or self-actualization. T.I.P.’s categorization of T.I. as Hollywood demonstrates not only his belief of the plasticity of T.I.’s persona but also the lack of authentic lived experience that he professes for his audience.

T.I. is playing a role that is problematic for T.I.P. because he is being written out of existence and the rage that he represents is once again suppressed and illegitimate. Instead of inner city Atlanta, it is the manufactured space that T.I. functions within that becomes the trap. What is disturbing about the phenomenon exhibited on T.I. vs. T.I.P. is the fact that Harris still needs an alter ego(s) to stay in eyesight of the American public. Harris’ personification of the inner conflicts that haunt him reflect those of other young men of color facing the need to perform an overextended representation of blackness. In order to be acknowledged or able to work through a traumatic situation, Harris and other young black men create a persona that threatens or counters expectations of their anticipated response.

This alternative expression is needed to work around the embedded code of silent suffering forced upon men of color. While Harris does not directly state that his album is an accurate portrayal of reality, he does acknowledge the conflicts of interest between social expectation of his character and personal growth. Neal astutely suggests that black men do not exist within the restraints of polite (conservative) society.

While it is no surprise that rap music is a space designated for a nihilistic and often exaggerated representation of African American men, it is also the minimalized side view of society where black manhood – both imaginary and in actuality – exist. It often casts its shadow over not only the black community, but American society’s understanding and expectations of black masculinity. The fear of invisibility intertwined with feelings of desperation and anxiety result in not only the T.I.P.’s of the world, but a sorely misunderstood reality of the anxieties that black men continue to face in America.


  1. Well done, this is such a powerful piece. As I have been juggling with the question of performitivity and Back masculinity, as well as Black authenticity. I adulate the way in which you critically engage the various albums of T.I., to surface the need for one to understand and negotiate their identity. All too often, we find that Black men, especially in the music industry, are negotiating their identity--trying to manage the music persona, and their "real" persona.Perhaps, the Black youth (men) of our society use this music as a way of authenticating their Blackness. Nonetheless, this is an excellent piece.

  2. WOW!!! Never heard anybody dissect the man like this. Thats why I look up to u. Beautiful Citation. I love the way you applied the double conscious which is usually abused by a lot of scholars. Ima be following your blog for now on. Good Stuff!!! A lot of men go through the same things that TI goes thru

  3. TI is a complicated cat. his struggles mirror that of so many of us, trying to negotiate our notions of what we're expected to be as black men versus multiple modes of expectations from our communities and society at large. As the prison rate, drug addiction, and high homicide rates reveal, many of us are not doing so hot figuring this all out. Hopefully, these kinds of dialogues will make a difference.

  4. Currently we have been working on two new project called Certified Mixtapez
    and Free Mixtapes .
    However we are trying to get all the DJs involve with this project.