The Number Ones

September 6, 2008

The Number Ones: T.I.’s “Whatever You Like”

Stayed at #1:

7 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

In October 2007, the feds did a sweep, and they snared one of the biggest rap stars on the planet. Before his arrest, Clifford “T.I.” Harris had racked up four platinum albums. He’d starred in a couple of movies. He’d rapped on Justin Timberlake’s #1 hit “My Love.” He’d helped change rap’s balance of power, popularizing the Atlanta street-rap subgenre known as trap and maybe even giving that style its name when he chose Trap Muzik as the title of his sophomore album. You’d think that those achievements would move T.I. into a whole new cultural category — the level of success where he wouldn’t feel like he needed to buy machine guns and silencers in a Walgreen’s parking lot. You’d be wrong.

A few hours before T.I. was scheduled to appear at the BET Awards in Atlanta, ATF agents arrested him outside an Atlanta Walgreen’s. T.I. was already a convicted felon, and he was legally barred from owning weapons. He arranged to buy those machine guns and silencers from an undercover agent, which was not a good idea. While awaiting charges, T.I. was placed under house arrest. He faced a possible decade in prison. In that moment, it looked like the self-crowned King Of The South had knocked himself off of the throne.

But things worked out for T.I. Thanks to a plea bargain and what must’ve been some serious expensive-lawyer wizardry, T.I. skated by with just a year in prison, plus community service. T.I. didn’t have to start his prison term until 2009, which left him time to record and promote a whole new album. While he was stuck at home on house arrest, T.I. wrote his biggest hit to date.

If you think it’s unbelievably stupid for an A-list rap star to get caught trying to buy machine guns, then I can’t really argue with you. T.I. could certainly afford armed security, but considering his background, maybe T.I. just couldn’t relax unless he had his own weapons within reach. There were extenuating circumstances. In 2006, T.I.’s best friend Philant Johnson was murdered at a Cincinnati nightclub during an after-party for a T.I. show. T.I. also had problems with some of his Atlanta peers. The late Shawty Lo, who’s been in this column as a member of D4L, spent 2008 feuding with Tip. Shawty Lo was feared and respected in Atlanta, and he T.I.’s Bankhead credentials into question on tracks like “Dunn Dunn.”

But T.I. was his own greatest enemy, and he knew it. In 2007, T.I. was riding high after a series of successes: His album King, his movie ATL, his verse on “My Love.” T.I. followed those triumphs with a rushed and muddled concept album called T.I. Vs. T.I.P. For years, T.I. had been saying that he lived a split life, balancing his businessman side and his street hustler side. He called the businessman T.I., and T.I.P. was the street guy. The album was supposed to tell the story of T.I.’s attempts to balance those sides. It didn’t really work.

The T.I. Vs. T.I.P. album went platinum, and first single “Big Things Poppin’ (Do It)” went top-10, peaking at #9. (It’s a 7.) Still, T.I. Vs. T.I.P. felt like a serious step down for the man’s career. Big stars love making albums about their split personalities, and those albums usually flop. When T.I. got arrested for buying those guns, the whole idea of that album became an obvious punchline. As in: T.I. must’ve been really mad when he found out that T.I.P. tried to buy all those guns. Just before the arrest, T.I. had released the single “Hurt,” a bracing track that’s entirely about gun violence. That was a T.I.P. song, and T.I. would never make another one like it. (Predictably, “Hurt” did not make the Hot 100. I still love “Hurt.” Alfamega went bonkers on that one.)

I’ve never seen this officially confirmed anywhere, but at the time, I heard that one of the conditions for T.I.’s shortened sentence was that he couldn’t rap about guns anymore. A stipulation like that would seem to have First Amendment implications, so maybe that’s why the deal was never made public. Maybe it was just in informal agreement between T.I. and the judge, or maybe T.I. simply decided that he didn’t want anyone bringing up his lyrics in a courtroom. Whatever the case, there’s no gun-talk on T.I.’s 2008 album Paper Trail. Instead, the LP sidelines the T.I.P. persona, presenting a version of T.I. with all of the edges sanded down.

The Paper Trail album title winks at T.I.’s legal situation, but T.I. said that he picked that name because his creative process changed while he was under house arrest. Following the Jay-Z model, T.I. generally came up with his lyrics on the spot in the studio. For Paper Trail, that changed. For the first time in years. T.I. actually wrote his lyrics down. He thought that choice made him more eloquent, and maybe it did. It definitely made him more deliberate. Paper Trail has very little of the livewire intensity that I hear on albums like Trap Muzik and King, let alone the many score-settling mixtape tracks that Tip recorded in the early ’00s. Instead, Paper Trail sounds like a series of business decisions, and one of those decisions is “Whatever You Like.”

T.I. has said that he wrote “Whatever You Like” in the early days of his house arrest, when he was just messing around with ideas. But T.I. had help. He co-wrote the track with David Siegel, a Miami-based pop-music professional who’d already co-written singles for stars like Jessica Simpson, Enrique Iglesias, and Clay Aiken. “Whatever You Like” had another co-writer, too: Jim Jonsin, the pop-rap mastermind who’d just produced Lil Wayne’s chart-topper “Lollipop.” In a lot of ways, “Whatever You Like” works as a streamlined take on “Lollipop.” Like “Lollipop,” it’s got a Southern rapper singing Auto-Tuned melodies over sleek and bleepy electro. But where Wayne was singing out of control about oral sex, T.I. used his track to calmly announce his intentions to spend a fuckton of money on a girl.

On the “Whatever You Like” intro, T.I. mentions “the ol’ sugar daddies,” and then he spends the rest of the song presenting himself as one of them. The entire track is T.I.’s pitch to a woman. It’s all transactional. The girl gives Tip late-night sex, so wet but so tight. In return, he’ll gas up the jet for her tonight, and she could have whatever she likes. T.I. never mentions his own fame, creativity, charm, or slightly rough-hewn good looks. Instead, he seems to believe his money is the only thing that he brings to the table. The song mostly works as a laundry-list of things that his money could potentially buy: mansions, drop Bentleys, $100K deposits, vacations to the tropics, stacks on deck, Patron on ice. He’s talking big-boy rides and big-boy ice; let him put this big boy in your life.

T.I. wasn’t the first rapper to discuss his own riches as romantic advantages; that had been happening since the very beginning of the genre. There’s definitely something attractive about the idea of someone who’s willing to blow a fortune to make you feel good; I knew a lot of girls who loved “Whatever You Like.” But there’s also something depressing about a song that celebrates the economic nature of sexual politics so brazenly. In recent years, “Whatever You Like” has taken on even more unfortunate resonance because of all the women who have accused T.I. and his wife, former Xscape member Tameka “Tiny” Cottle, of drugging and sexually assaulting them. The song hits different when you have to worry that there’s something other than ice in that Patron.

You’re probably sick of reading about allegations of pop stars doing fucked-up things. I’m definitely sick of writing about that stuff, especially when I’m talking about the music that those stars made. But it can’t be helped. Music is a subjective thing; there’s no way to consider a song’s effectiveness without its context. Instead, these songs are memory machines. I hear “Whatever You Like,” and I think of the end of a summer on the precipice — a time just before a presidential election and a financial collapse.

A few months after “Whatever You Like” reached #1, I’d been laid off, landed another job, moved across the country, and become a father. “Whatever You Like” should evoke memories of those final days when I was having drunk picnics with friends in Prospect Park every weekend and getting high before going to see every Judd Apatow-related movie. The song does evoke those memories, but now it also makes me think of T.I., a rapper who I loved, doing unforgivably sketchy shit to innocent women. I’m not a victim here; if the stories are true, people have suffered terribly at T.I.’s hands. But I feel a certain sense of mourning for those memories, which are now corrupted.

As with so many of these cases, I still love a lot of T.I.’s music. But I never loved “Whatever You Like.” The song always sounded like product. It’s effective product, though. T.I. has a great voice, a honeyed drawl that radiates weathered authority. Tip was never a singer, but he always adapted bouncy, melodic cadences for his hooks. On “Whatever You Like,” T.I. uses that delivery for the entire song, never locking into the hungry flow that he usually used for his verses. I bet co-writer David Siegel had something to do with that.

On the “Whatever You Like” beat, Jim Jonsin samples the triumphant orchestral fanfare from film composer and former Number Ones artist Bill Conti’s Rocky II theme “Redemption.” Jonsin takes its tingly pianos and rumbling strings, using them to build a whole bed of synthetic cotton candy. His beat sounds a lot cleaner and more streamlined than most of that era’s straight-up rap beats, but it meshes nicely with T.I.’s loping singsong. The whole thing is catchy in a very undemanding way. The power of that catchiness has faded over time, but I can still hear the craft at work in “Whatever You Like.”

“Whatever You Like” was extremely well-marketed. T.I. started the rollout to the Paper Trail rollout by working with “My Love” co-producer Danja on the statement-of-purpose song “No Matter What.” That song only made it to #72 on the Hot 100, but the song wasn’t supposed to become a crossover hit. Instead, it was supposed to tell a story, depicting T.I. as an embattled but determined rap titan who was facing difficult times with his head held high. That song was supposed to make sure the public stayed on T.I.’s side. In recent years, I’ve been more leery of these songs where rappers talk about themselves as tortured but untouchable demigods, figures of destiny. I can think of a couple of recent cases where those rappers started to believe their own hype, where their infectious confidence became untenable arrogance. In the moment, though, I was into the hero-worship aspect of songs like that. I didn’t even think “No Matter What” was a very good song, but I found it weirdly moving anyway.

It would’ve been weird to release a pop-rap trifle like “Whatever You Like” without first addressing T.I.’s looming prison sentence, and “No Matter What” got that out of the way. T.I. filmed the “Whatever You Like” video in Malibu, with director Dave Meyers making sure to get T.I. back to his house by 10 every night so that he wouldn’t violate his house arrest. In the clip, T.I. stops at a chicken spot for some hot wings, and he tells the cashier that she’s too cute to work there. Reagan Gomez-Preston, who’d been one of the child actors on the ’90s sitcom The Parent ‘Hood, plays the cashier, and the whole video is told from her perspective.

After T.I. slips Reagan Gomez-Preston his number, she calls, and he promptly showers her with riches. He buys her cars and jewelry, takes her on private jets, and sing-raps to her by his backyard swimming pool. In one weird moment, she waits for T.I. to leave the house, and then she dresses up like him, rapping into the bedroom mirror. The whole time, she delights at getting to move past her broke boyfriend, played by the stand-up comic and rap-video regular Lil Duval. But when the video ends, we learn that we’ve just been watching Gomez-Preston’s daydream reverie — one more video with a back-to-reality comedy ending. T.I. hasn’t really given this girl his number. He’s merely given her a $100 tip. She couldn’t be more crushed.

“Whatever You Like” was the #1 song in America during a consequential time for the country. On the song, T.I. says that he wants yo’ body, needs yo’ body. Thanks to his accent, it sounds a bit like he’s saying that he wants and needs Joe Biden. People noticed, and the audio of T.I. seemingly endorsing Barack Obama’s running mate became an early meme.

“Whatever You Like” also topped the charts during most of the uncertain days of the 2008 financial collapse. Once that happened, I pretty much assumed I’d lose my job before the end of the year, which was exactly what happened. The same thing happened to a whole lot of other people, too. Maybe that made the fantasy appeal of “Whatever You Like” even stronger. When you’re broke and your future is uncertain, you’re probably more listen to the rich guy who promises that you could have whatever you like.

In its first week of release, “Whatever You Like” sold more than 300,000 downloads — the most that a song had ever moved in a single week. The single was double platinum within a few weeks, and it pushed T.I.’s Paper Trail album to sell a whole lot of first-week copies. Atlantic Records, perhaps learning from Lil Wayne’s mixtape blitz, proceeded to crank out more T.I. singles before the album’s release. Most of them didn’t get videos or heavy promotion, and most of them weren’t huge hits. The stormy “Ready For Whatever,” the Swizz Beatz collab “Swang Ya Rag,” and the Shawty Lo diss “What Up, What’s Haapnin’” all peaked in the bottom half of the Hot 100. But one of those early singles did land.

For the statement-song “Swagga Like Us,” producer Kanye West sampled M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” a slow-building hit that was still on the charts at the time. “Swagga Like Us” gathered the four biggest stars of that moment, rap’s Mount Rushmore, for a superstar summit meeting. The song itself is bad, but its mere existence was a spectacle: T.I., Kanye, Lil Wayne, and Jay-Z, all on the same song at the same time. “Swagga Like Us” never even got a video, but all four rappers gave it a memorable performance at the Grammys a few months later, along with a very pregnant M.I.A. (“Swagga Like Us” peaked at #5. It’s a 4.)

Somehow, T.I. turned a gun conviction into a career boost. The imperial era of T.I.’s career turned out to be the stretch between his arrest and the beginning of his prison term. “Swagga Like Us” was the event-song, but it wasn’t the biggest hit on Paper Trail. Neither, for that matter, was “Whatever You Like.” T.I. had an even bigger song on deck. He’ll be back in this column very soon.

GRADE: 5/10

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BONUS BEATS: Just before the 2008 election, a group of fired-up kids from Atlanta’s Ron Clark Academy became viral stars by turning “Whatever You Like” into the election-themed song parody “You Can Vote However You Like.” Here they are, performing the song on CNN:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Another “Whatever You Like” parody also transformed the song into something topical. While “Whatever You Like” was still sitting at #1, “Weird Al” Yankovic released his version, also called “Whatever You Like.” Yankovic delivered his take on the song from the perspective of a broke dude who promises to buy you Top Ramen and two-ply toilet paper. Here it is:

(In uncertain times, at least we can all agree that “Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Wayne, a former Number Ones artist and one of T.I.’s “Swagga Like Us” collaborators, rapping pretty badly over the “Whatever You Like” beat on his 2008 mixtape track “Whoever You Like”:

(The other two rappers on that track, Gudda Gudda and Jae Millz, are both on Young Money’s “BedRock,” which peaked at #2 in 2009. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s singer-songwriter Anya Marina’s semi-acoustic “Whatever You Like” cover, which became an unlikely chart hit in 2009:

That “Whatever You Like” cover peaked at #88; it’s Anya Marina’s only Hot 100 hit. Marina’s version charted for a very specific reason: A Gossip Girl episode used it to soundtrack an infamous threesome scene. Here’s the scene in question:

(Hilary Duff’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “With Love,” peaked at #24. I demand justice for 2005’s “Wake Up,” an absolute fucking banger that only made it to #29. Leighton Meester guested on Cobra Starship’s “Good Girls Go Bad,” which reached #7 in 2009. It’s a 3. The Pretty Reckless, the band fronted by Taylor Momsen, have racked up a lot of alt-rock radio hits, but they’ve never been on the Hot 100.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the sketchy South African joke-rap group Die Antwoord’s memorably weird video for their 2010 track “Enter The Ninja,” which heavily interpolates the “Whatever You Like” beat:

THE 10S: The aforementioned “Paper Planes,” M.I.A.’s playful Clash-sampling thievery anthem, peaked at #4 behind “Whatever You Like.” The week that “Paper Planes” reached its peak, “Swagga Like Us” was one spot behind it, sitting at #5. All I wanna do is [gunshot noises] take your money and also let you know that “Paper Planes” is a 10.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books — chapters on deck, serious consideration on Vanilla Ice. Buy it here.

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