T.I.: Once and Future King

T.I. is unafraid to be a little lame, unafraid to be real, and that much more regal for it.

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okt 22 2014, 9:00am


Photos by Jason Bergman

The signs of T.I.'s enduring royalty are not all totally obvious, but they are there, as quiet confirmation: the soles of his shoes are barely dirty, his teeth are perfect, his team projects a quiet but smooth efficacy, he radiates charm and charisma. You want to laugh at his jokes not because he is famous—which he is, very—and you hope to please him but rather because he is actually funny. Onstage at a preview screening of the “No Mediocre” video in July, he holds his own with Lil Duval, setting up the comedian for jokes as much as he himself is set up. In a trip through the VICE offices a few weeks later, T.I. responds to my slow-forming question about change and fatherhood with a deadpan understatement. How has T.I. changed, in coming to play the role of family man, reality TV fixture, and, yes, more mature rapper over the last few years? He's matter-of-fact about it: “Same old king.”

At 34, T.I. is unequivocally one of the elder statesmen of Atlanta rap, and though he no longer retains the righteous fury and pop savvy of his youth, he’s still scoring significant successes. For one, he was on the biggest song of last year, “Blurred Lines” (his fourth number one single), and continues to be a trusted collaborator of pop music's reigning behind-the-scenes genius, Pharrell. According to T.I., it was Pharrell who, at his own wedding, lined up T.I.'s current label deal with Columbia before coming on as an executive producer for T.I.'s new album, Paperwork. And T.I. was the first superstar rapper to invite Atlanta’s current hottest rapper, Young Thug, onto a track, Paperwork’s “About the Money,” which is Tip’s finest single in years.

If nothing else, T.I. has the distinction of being a sort of steward (and in some conspiracy theorists' eyes, far more than that) for his Grand Hustle imprint's biggest success and the person who is perhaps the most visible rapper in the country right now, Iggy Azalea. Along with Iggy, Grand Hustle’s roster includes Travi$ Scott, who is one of hip-hop’s most hyped young artists, and the imprint’s recent Hustle Gang mixtapes have shown T.I. effectively keeping a foot in the freewheeling world of contemporary street rap. He's also now on the fourth season of his second reality show, T.I. and Tiny: The Family Hustle, which puts him in front of a bigger audience every week than many musicians get in their whole careers.

Most importantly, T.I. is still the king because in his music he remains the incredibly gifted lyricist he has always been, the quick-witted, detailed storyteller with a dexterous flow and a laconic bravado that's impossible to replicate. He remains the sonic template for the current era of rap. Lest we forget, he’s the guy who more or less invented the concept of “trap music.” He is, simply put, one of the greatest rappers of all time.

At the same time, being a great rapper is a guarantee of very little, especially musical relevance, where technical virtuosity is only part of the formula. After putting out a string of beloved albums that culminated in the outright classic King in 2006, T.I. was poised to dominate hip-hop in the latter half of the 2000s. There was a disappointing follow-up, T.I. vs. TIP, but then he returned with his biggest album ever in Paper Trail, which spawned eight singles, including two Billboard number ones, “Whatever You Like” and “Live Your Life.” It was as if T.I. couldn’t miss: He had a song with Rihanna right as she was on the cusp of transitioning from niche R&B star to global superstar. He had a song with the unbelievable lineup of Lil Wayne, Kanye West, and Jay Z, and he out-rapped all of them, over a beat that sampled M.I.A. as she was becoming one of the faces of indie music. He had a song with Justin Timberlake, who is Justin Timberlake. He made hits of his own with hooks that stuck—“What Up, What's Haapnin” and “Swing Ya Rag” (which may or may not have compelled your trusted author to head out in search of a knockoff Louis bandana, which he found). On top of all of that, he was headed to prison for a very public gun charge that helped build the buzz for the album. Basically, Paper Trail was the perfect confluence of factors to make a great T.I. album and have it succeed. But it also kind of set T.I. up for his current phase, with success that came from deliberately catering to a pop audience rather than bending the rest of the world to his sound, as he had done on King's monster hit, “What You Know.” And then he went to prison.

Upon returning from prison in 2009 and since going in a second time for violating his probation in 2010, T.I. has struggled to regain the kind of buzz that he had before he went away, and neither of his last two albums, No Mercy and Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head, ended up generating much attention in the form of radio singles or critical appreciation (although both still sold over a half million copies). If T.I.'s rise to King of the South was built on hunger and the relentless energy of a conquering warlord, his reign as King of the South has been quieter and gentler. One of T.I.'s defining qualities throughout the early years of his career was his temper, which was quick, vicious, and often poorly advised. T.I. found himself in well-publicized conflicts with artists like Lil' Flip and Shawty Lo, and the central tension of his career was always whether he could stay out of trouble. A 2006 Vibe cover story observed that “as his career opportunities grow, the chip on his shoulder continues to threaten all that he's gained” and that “if you spend enough time with the dude, you'll find that losing control just may be one of the things he does best” (it also notes that his term for losing control is “nuttin' up,” which is a pretty good example of the way T.I. tends to talk). In a 2007 interview with the website The YBF, T.I. commented on the likelihood of his ever doing a reality show by saying “I got a bad ass temper. I mean... bad. I told you this ain't for TV.”

Part of that attitude stemmed from T.I.'s continued feeling that, as he suggests, there was never much of a guarantee of safety. In 2006, right after T.I. released King, T.I.'s best friend Philant Johnson was murdered, sparking what T.I. describes as a troubled phase in which he didn't really know how to deal with his grief. Today, T.I. is more settled and composed, a more polished, family-friendly character. He's a dad on TV, and the defining image of the buildup to his new album, which is out today, is not of him talking tough with Young Thug on “About the Money” but rather of him sipping tea with Kermit the Frog and talking to the women on The View (not that that's any of my business). Sure, there are still flashes of the old anger—an incident where he tried to fight Floyd Mayweather, a vicious Instagram takedown of Azaleia Banks in which he referred to her as a “musty-mouthed-thot-bot-bad-body-syphillis-lipped-rectum-vomit-unimportant-ugggggly-monstrosity-of-a-maggot-ass BIIIIITCH”—but T.I. is, on the whole, a calmer, more magnanimous presence now. He speaks with the same thick Southern accent as always, and his speech is full of folksy phrases—“sheesh,” “playing possum,” “that doesn't amount to a hill of beans”—that suggest he would probably get along great with your parents.

While this persona definitely makes for good TV and, presumably, a more relaxed life, it's less clear how it comes to bear on T.I.'s music. Paperwork is an uneven album that rises to cringeworthiness in a few places—pubic hair removal is a theme of the single “No Mediocre,” which lives up to its title in that it doesn't even hit the standard of mediocrity, and the Chris Brown feature “Private Show” is more likely to kill the mood than set it. But this is a T.I. album steered by the guiding hand of hip-hop’s high wizard Pharrell—it sounds good, sitting in Paper Trail’s pocket of Southern-indebted but broadly popular hip-hop and taking pains to highlight Tip's lyricism above all else. As far as T.I. albums go, this could be the one that most appeals to rap traditionalists. “G Shit” feels like T.I. channeling Snoop Dogg to great success, and “New National Anthem” is a surprisingly catchy moment of political candor. “Jet Fuel” calls to mind King or Trap Muzik T.I., plus it features Boosie. But it's “Let Your Heart Go (Break My Soul)” that probably offers the best sense of T.I. as a person in 2014, with his ad-libbed speeches that feel honest, a little incredulous, and free of posturing. At one point he encourages listeners to “Sing; on the inside, nigga, you still tough!” That's T.I. right now: unafraid to be a little lame, unafraid to be real, and that much more regal for it.

How did you end up bringing Young Thug in for “About the Money?”
I’d been hearing about him from my partner Peewee Roscoe, who’s the facilitator for Young Thug. After “Stoner” and “Danny Glover,” I told him “y'all come by the studio and see what we can do.” He showed up one day and we walked in and did “About the Money” in 30 minutes. And we just keep recording. We've got about 12 or 14 records now. That's what made me respect that generation. Thug brought me PeeWee Longway. Then I met Migos. Based off “Versace” I never really knew that they could rap. But meeting 'em and hearing 'em and experiencing these cats and seeing that even though they're different from what we did, there's still an adequate amount of skill set and artistry involved.

Everyone always calls Migos a flash in the pan, but if you meet them, it’s obvious they know what they're doing.
They’re playing possum, as they say. And Rich Homie Quan, I think, is probably one of the most developed, most poised rappers out. He balances that new school with a little bit of the classic shit too.

I think the younger generation of rappers was definitely wondering for a while what, say, you or Jeezy thought of their music.
The thing with me and Young Jeezy is most of these young cats came from up under Gucci. And of course, you know, nobody fucks with him. Just because he's, you know, a diarrhea mouth. And that association initially made people kind of standoffish. But as time went on, as human beings should always do, we realized we can't hold one person accountable for the next person's actions. You've got to really judge them based on their own merit.

What do you see your role as in Atlanta? Do you still see yourself—
I'm the king.

I'm the king, but respectfully, though. I'm not a king who's going to push my weight around for no substantial cause or justification. I'm not a tyrant.

A benevolent king.
Yes, I'm a benevolent king. A man of the people. I think me and Jeezy, of the older new school, or the newer old school, I think we're probably the elder statesmen. And I have to throw Rocko in there as well. I think we are the ones that probably can move mountains, if necessary, from that time. Between the three of us, we're going to get to the bottom of it. And also Killer Mike. I can't discredit Killer Mike. I'm really proud of Run the Jewels, that album they put out. I think that's probably one of the most cohesive blends of backpack and underground street shit. I think it's probably the smoothest transition from one world to the next.

How does being a father change your perspective?
I feel like fatherhood is the one thing that you will love and you will never master. You can do it every day of your life, work at it, and be completely committed to it, invested in it, and passionate about it. But you can never master it because it's constantly changing. You have to always reboot, update your systems, and really just remain acclimated and up to speed with the goings on. And then if you have multiple children, well, sheesh, you must be a certain type of father to this one, a different type of father to this one because they have different strengths and different weaknesses, different ambitions, different applications of skills.

And as soon as you think you've got it, then they enter another phase of life. You're used to waking up in the middle of the night and feeding and changing diapers and pacifiers and all that, then OK, it's time to potty train. And then they're teething. Then they're talking. You have to rope off the stairs and keep them from getting into the sockets and all that. And once you've mastered that, it's preschool time. You have to get them ready to go to sleep at a certain time, wake up at a certain time, go to school, pay attention. And then after that it's kindergarten. Now it's first grade. Now there's no more naps. Every time you feel like you've got it figured out, something new happens.

So it's just a constant evolution, and you've just got to continue to remain involved, focused, attentive, there. There is no best. Barack Obama is the president of the United States, and look how they talk about his father.

What are your kids into right now that really mystifies you or makes you feel old?
Man, Domani would probably be the closest example of that right now. He's the Andre 3000 of the family. He's eclectic, outgoing, daring to be different, and artistic in every way, from visual art to music. Domani said he wanted to go to school to learn telekinesis. He's like, “Do you know we only use two percent of our brain? I want to unlock the rest.” I said, “Listen. You are tripping, man.” He wears plaids and polka dots and cheetahs and zebras. It's just weird. He's very Odd Future-ish. He's 13. He’s about to drop a mixtape. He remade “About the Money” called “If It Ain't About Domani.”

How has it been working with Pharrell?
I feel like Pharrell, man, he does gangsta shit as well as he does next level shit. I’ll give you an example. “Drop It Like It's Hot” was like something we'd never heard. Simplistic yet sophisticated. It had very old hip-hop sounds to it, and then it had very new hip-hop sounds to it. It was a blend, and it worked. Same for “Feds Watching,” that 2 Chainz song that Pharrell did. That, to me, was groundbreaking. The sound on the record, I feel like it was a very, very intellectual way of presenting a 2 Chainz record. So I feel like it's the best work that I have been able to present, with Pharrell giving me wings and me giving him an anchor, grounding it, it's the best of both worlds.

What do you think 19-year-old I'm Serious T.I. would think of current T.I.?
I think young T.I., he would look at me now and say, “You got old.” And I think I would look at him and say, “Yeah, but I sure did get rich, though.”

So you were pretty similar?
I was definitely a more extreme version of this. As much trouble as people say I get into, I'm definitely mild-mannered and conservative compared to me from 15 to 25. Compared to then, I'm a librarian.

What were you like in school?
I was a smart-ass. I was extremely smart and intelligent. I knew the work. I just wouldn't do it. I was the one that they thought because I'm not paying attention that I didn’t know. And then I answer the question right. I got called into the counselor's office around ninth grade because one semester I made all Fs and two As. The two As I had were in algebra and language arts. My language arts teacher, she knew that I was a rapper, so she always found ways to apply language arts to how I could use it to benefit my passion. So I paid attention, and I did the work because she appealed to my interests. And math, I just always liked numbers. I'd just come up with math problems in my head. If we're trying to figure out what 20 percent of 720 is, I've already got it.

I'm trying to do the math in my head right now.
A hundred and forty-four.

One thing you always talk about is your temper. I was reading an interview with you from 2007 where someone asked if you would ever do a reality show, and you said you wouldn't let cameras into your house because you have too much of a temper. Now you've done two reality shows.
Obviously I’ve changed. But at the time that was the absolute truth. If it was pre-arrest, I was very temperamental, very hostile, and very just aggressive. And armed to the teeth. So I think that sometimes if you'd see me grab a pistol and run outside because there's an unwelcome guest, that isn't necessarily fit for television, but at the time that's how I was living.

But I changed, definitely. One hundred and eighty degrees. I don't own a firearm. And I don't have as many unwelcome guests. I mean people ride by, take pictures, and do all that kind of stuff. You know what, actually? A dude actually walked into my house. Hopped my gate. I wasn't there. My sister was there. He was like, “Hey, I want to meet T.I.!” And she was like, “You better get your ass out!” and she ran him off and called me. I was like, “You know, you should have sat him down and offered him some tea. Told him I was coming.”

But yeah, man, I think life has a way of changing people. Life is a constant evolution, just a series of adjustments. And when you stop growing, you start dying. So for me to remain the same that I was then, I'd stop living. There's no more life because the evolution has ceased and desisted. I don't think that's healthy, I don't think it's realistic, I don't think it's human. I've definitely progressed.

What are some of the ways that you've learned to manage your anger?
I just kind of let it go. Before I kind of put anger on, I just adopted it. After Phil died, I just became extremely angry. I went from being extremely happy and satisfied with my existence and things that I had managed to accomplish and just kind of living in the moment of, “I made it” and, “I'm living my dream.” And then Phil died, and I just said, “Fuck this dream. This shit is a wolf in sheep's clothing. It's not as good as I thought it was. Everybody knows me. I don't know anybody. Everyone knows when I should pull up, when I'm showing up somewhere. Everybody's out to get me.” I became paranoid, angry, resentful.

I think when I caught my case that that was the beginning of me letting it go. Now I'm only angry when things approach me that cause me to become angry. Now it’s, “Good morning!” It's not, “Bah! Sunshine! Fuck the sun! It's too hot! Someone's catching skin cancer right now!” I think right now I try to apply as much optimism as I can to life and be as realistic as I can about the yin and the yang of the universe. It's going to be bad, and you're going to have to endure that bad, and that's what makes you appreciate the good. Pain is what lets us know we're alive. Instead of expecting life to not be painful, you prepare for pain. Your last moment in pain, all the adversity prepared you for the next phase of adversity. And in between, your happy moments, you appreciate it because you had adverse moments. And I try to look at it that way.

Before, I don't think I grieved, really. I was numb to so much. Shit just kind of bottled up, and it started to kind of be infectious. It started to be parasitic. It feeds off of the rest of you because it's so much of you. It's gangrene internally. And I just let it go, man.

Do you feel like that comes out in your music?
It always has. I think now there's more logic, there's more sense. I think there's more life experience, wisdom, and reality applied. I take what I've been used to, what I have gone through, and I try to mix it with, “You do know it's not realistic, right?” Like, for instance, I shot my first gun at 12. OK, the majority of Americans have not shot a gun. And maybe 40 percent have never even heard a gunshot. And 35 percent are afraid of the things altogether. So you've got to apply this to your logic. I can't just assume that because things are so common to me, that they are to the rest of the world. Just because I’ve been in shootouts since I was 16 doesn't mean the rest of the world understands this kind of behavior.

You've got to pull back. It's like someone who's gone to war. They've gone over and experienced Afghanistan, and when they come back they've got to keep their experiences, but they can't apply those experiences to the rest of the world because their environment—it doesn't apply. It's not happening. But until they realize that, they just walk around looking crazy. They just walk around prepared for something that's not going to happen. I think that's what Erykah Badu meant by “Bag Lady.” You're carrying around unnecessary shit. You've got to let it go. There's nobody that's going to run in here and put a gun in my face, so why would I just sit here prepared for war? And I think the acknowledgment is what allows me to relax.

We don't necessarily acknowledge that growing up in that environment, you're going to have—
Post-traumatic stress disorder. I'm definitely diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and some anxiety. I'm affected. I know this about myself, and I try to work on myself internally.

Follow Kyle Kramer on Twitter.

Jason Bergman is a photographer living in New York. Follow Jason Bergman on Instagram.