T.I. as the preacher in the “I Believe” music video
Notes on this analysis: There are no official lyrics for this song, so the lyrics quoted below are based on those compiled by Genius.com, as well as my own transcriptions (there are some discrepancies). I have also been unable to identify the singer on the track, despite the important role she plays. I should also note that there is a video to accompany the song, but I chose not to address that here, as there is plenty to cover in the audio track alone.
You have to understand that it’s a dialogue, a dance of forms—but that it’s also unified. If you don’t get that, you get nothing. The parts—the music, the voices, the language, the meaning—can be separated out in analysis, but only as parts of a whole. And you can’t fixate on a static sense of meaning, because when meaning occurs through a multi-formal experience, in time, that experience is intrinsic to whatever meaning arises from it. Now on with it.
We begin in restlessness: a synthetic tapping like a stylized ticking time bomb or a fingernail frantically drumming on glass. This resolves into a pleasant guitar strum as the bass falls in and—with the synth—establishes the tight falling and rising melodic motion that forms the musical backbone of the piece. The music is low-key throughout the song, hardly piercing the foreground and giving the vocals plenty of space. The repetitive and constrained musical movement, meanwhile, make it like the voices are pacing back and forth in a room while trying to articulate their deep-set rage.
Then the female voice comes in, distantly welcomed by muted horns. She sings sparsely and briefly—“All disappointed / we’re all disappointed / [pause] all disappointed”—before T.I. starts his first verse:
Now, I believe in a lot of things,
believe karma real, believe Allah king,
believe the Bible was re-written
and the preacher be bullshittin’,
so when they speak, believe not a thing.
Right away, the song’s themes are established: disappointment, belief, and disbelief. The prominence of religion is a key indicator of the doubt-faith tension here. Later in the song, T.I. raps, “I believe Jesus Christ died for my sins,” adding yet another world religion in which he professes to believe, but only on his own terms. This first verse runs about a minute and a half, and covers quite a bit of ground, but these opening lines set it all up by establishing the speaker’s independence. That goes for belief as well as tone: MLK “had a dream for real,” but “we fighting with the demons still” as the rulers perpetuate an episode of “Pinky and the Brain for real / wanna run around, rule everything for real.”
These lines establish two things: first, a willingness to employ simple end rhymes, allowing T.I. to perform dexterous moves within the lines (notice how the packed-in u-sounds of “run around, rule” play off the a and e-sounds around it) while the end rhymes keep the verse ordered. Second, though the subject matter is serious and urgent, playfulness persists. The album was released between the American election and before Trump’s inauguration, and T.I.’s serious about that looming tragedy—in part by way of reference to ’90s-era afterschool cartoons. Playfulness, of course, exists throughout the song via the rapper’s go-to tools: word play, rhyme, and cadence. More on how that effects the song’s meaning below.
The rest of the verse covers the afterlife consequences of earthly actions, the seriousness of different sins, the barriers set before young black people, and the sins of the political class. He oscillates between certain belief (“rather give me 50 years than a scholarship / anything to keep me outta politics”) and doubt (did politicians kill Tupac and Biggie? “I ain’t really sure of that”). From here we move on to a laundry-list critique of American power. We get a reference to Uncle Sam-as-Trump “grabbin’ on her pussy,” and a clear acknowledgement that the “black and white thing” is also a “dead wrong and right thing.”
The album was released between the American election and before Trump’s inauguration, and T.I.’s serious about that looming tragedy …
This moves us into the verse’s final push. Before this point, the rhyme pattern is fairly regular, with some playful slant rhymes (“USA” rhymes with “Lois Lane”) mixed in. At this point, around the 2:10 mark, we get this:
I believe white supremacy, think I don’t see?
Everything they try to bring down on me?
Like the stop and frisk, mass incarceration, that perpetuation of recidivism
that mean they created systems hard to break
that’s why millions still behind bars today.
Notice all the interior rhymes and rhythmic repetitions happening in the lines above: incarceration/perpetuation/recidivism/they created. This density forces T.I. to slow down ever-so-slightly to let the intricate soundplay expand before returning to the relatively less-packed final two lines in the quote above. This slowing-down creates a rhythmic variation within the verse as a whole, which has been stepping along evenly and briskly for the most part until now. T.I. finishes the verse by critiquing that “Columbus Day you believe a holiday,” suggesting that’s the equivalent of making a holiday for a list of criminals, from John Gotti to Hitler. “Sounds stupid, hey?” But that’s the world T.I. sees:
hypocrisy more American than democracy,
far as I can see the constitution weren’t for folk who look like me
and that’s what I believe.
Notice, again, the straightforward rhyme scheme, but also how it’s employed through uneven line lengths. Line length often does not matter in rap. The rhymes provide structure to the listener’s experience no matter the line length, and the variance of length allows T.I. to play within the line with cadences like “hypocrisy/democracy/as I can see/look like me/I believe,” which in the end structure the listening experience as much as the end rhymes themselves. T.I. proves masterful in his ability to capture such patterns without interfering with his argument.
And, argument. Rap is often a polemical form, and this song bears that out. The argument here is not as easy to pin down as it seems, though. It can be of two minds, which the music video dramatizes by staging it as an argument between a preacher and a skeptical congregant (both played by T.I.). I’m not sure we have to accept that dramatic structure, however, to know the rhetoric is not always consistent, especially with how the subject matter can jump around from line to line (it’s almost reminiscent at times of the way a ghazal’s couplets speak past each other). We can just as easily imagine this argumentative unevenness as the speaker’s inner-conflict working itself out.
The rhymes provide structure to the listener’s experience no matter the line length …
We also can’t judge the words alone as an argument. The argument does not exist but in how it is experienced, meaning that the simultaneous occurrence of poetic and musical effects must be taken into account. Those effects charge the experience of the argument—making it more immediately pleasing, and thus more engaging—and its organization. The refrain “I believe” is both a poetic and musical device here. Like the end rhymes do for internal rhymes, this refrain allows T.I.’s content and sound some room to roam, while always ensuring both will return to the central concern (and cadence) of “I believe.” The confluence of these effects also serves to show off T.I.’s impressive formal skills, because it is very difficult to create an argument that demands attention while also making a song-poem that succeeds as such. This may be hard to appreciate because when rap is done this well, it sounds seamless and easy. It is not.
The second sung chorus adds variation, in both an argumentative and musical sense. It is both more melodic than T.I.’s (spoken) verses and less rhythmically intricate. There’s also an expansive progression to these choruses. Like the restlessness/release pattern the song opens with, the singer’s parts gain steam, like she’s caged up and gradually released. Her second verse is somewhat mysterious, though she returns to the melody employed in the opening. She’s now addressing a “you” who’s “down at the moment” and hoping to find resolve from god. But she adds a barb: you “still think your skin make you way more important.” This first verse seems aimed at white supremacists, but the second verse seems focused on materialism, with the “you” chasing money only to be disappointed: “all this money but you still can’t afford me / gotta sell your soul just to get up on the Forbes list.” This unidentified “me” then declares herself a leader who will “get us all in,” suggesting this “me” could represent a level of satisfaction beyond material gain.
The “you” in T.I.’s next short verse is very clearly Donald Trump, who “wanna take advantage of a lesser man / build a wall keeping out the Mexicans.” But it also expands out to the larger (white) establishment: “go to Standing Rock, wanna poison water / just like [Flint,] Michigan.” Outrage, however, is not surprising: “God never said the wicked wouldn’t form, / he just said they wouldn’t prosper.” That supports my assumption that the second chorus is a critique of materialism: both the rich and the powerful are not truly prospering. The confidence in both the verses and choruses is notable. This is not despair, but defiance.
The argument does not exist but in how it is experienced, meaning that the simultaneous occurrence of poetic and musical effects must be taken into account.
From there the song enters its most certain phase: the outro. The singer picks up her melodic chant again, this time rallying the audience to “stand with your people” and send “a message to America.” She returns briefly to address American foreign power—I can’t be sure, but I think she sings, “ ’bout to do some war play, oh, you want that oil, eh?”—and compares it to home, with “neighborhoods like a battlefield, we are not safe.” T.I. then picks up on that final phrase, chanting “I believe we are not safe” as the song trails off.
We began in restless anger and end on a note of certain foreboding, with alertness pervading throughout. Given the historical context of the song, this is appropriate. T.I. is responding to an imminent threat, Trump, and he is careful not to over or underestimate that threat. This song is about establishing a position, and preparing a response.
You could see this is a protest song with a clear message of resistance to power. It’s self-consciously attempting to channel Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement, but while god is invoked, the song is laced with skepticism of church institutions. You could also say this is a song about remaining calm and watchful in a cauldron of political hate. That’s why I return to it, over and over again, in these still early days of the Trump era. But with events like Charlottesville so regularly in the news now, a message alone isn’t enough to affect that kind of attachment in me.
But something different happens when that kind of meaning comes coupled with rhythm and music. There’s joy in even the saddest well-crafted rhyme, rhythmic variation, or cadence. And T.I. is nothing if not a master of these sound elements of rap. With this song, and the whole album it’s on, he’s proven to be capable of injecting profound meanings into those formal projections and the emotional response they evoke. And it’s a good thing, too. As T.I. himself puts it later in the album, in these troubled times “we need a Pac, but he gone.” Who else but himself should fill those shoes? After all, he’s got the voice, and he’s got the ear.