T.I.: The Billboard Cover Story
T.I. lost fans (and sponsors) when he went to prison a second time. So in the 13 months since his release, the hip-hop power player has been busy diversifying his business (books, TV, movies) and making the album of his life.
On Aug. 31, 2011, Clifford “T.I.” Harris Jr. walked out of Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Forrest City, a low-security federal prison in Forrest City, Ark., not quite a free man. The day marked the end of the chart-topping, Grammy Award-winning rapper/actor’s second stint in Forrest City in as many years. And T.I., who had served 10 months of an 11-month sentence for probation violation stemming from a September 2010 traffic stop in Los Angeles, was elated. He boarded a private tour bus to make the 375-mile trip from Forrest City to a halfway house in Atlanta where he was scheduled to serve the remainder of his sentence, and he took to Twitter to celebrate his release:
“The storm is over & da sun back out. IT’S OUR TIME TO SHINE SHAWTY!!!!!”
But the sun quickly dimmed. Less than 24 hours later, T.I. was back in jail, embroiled in yet another legal entanglement, this time over exactly how he got from Forrest City to Atlanta. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, T.I.’s choice of transportation — a luxury tour bus — in addition to his fellow passengers, which included manager Brian Sher of Category 5 Entertainment, TV producer Cris Abrego and T.I.’s wife, Tameka “Tiny” Cottle Harris, violated the terms of his release, which prohibited T.I. from discussing business while traveling between the facilities. Though all parties aboard the bus denied discussing business during the trip, T.I.’s release coincided with the announcement of two new deals, one with HarperCollins for a fictional series written with David Ritz and the other for a new 10-episode reality series with VH1, which began filming as T.I. left FCI Forrest City and to which both Sher and Abrego were attached.
It took less than a day, but T.I. was already back to doing what he does best: stirring up controversy and breaking new business. (Attorney Jonathan Leonard later clarified that although the announcement of both deals had been timed to T.I.’s release, they had actually been inked earlier in the year.)
Two weeks later, and after aggressive lobbying of the Federal Bureau of Prisons by T.I.’s business and legal teams, T.I. was released from the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta and sent to Dismas House in Atlanta to serve the remainder of his sentence. On Sept. 29, 2011, more than a year after he and Tiny were pulled over for making an illegal U-turn on Sunset Boulevard, T.I. — who’s posted three No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 and rung up three No. 1s on the Billboard Hot 100 during the course of a seven-album, 11-year career that has registered 9 million-plus albums and 34 million tracks sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan — was once again a free man.
On Dec. 18, T.I., now 32, will deliver his first album since his release. The project, “Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head,” is the culmination of a year’s worth of recording sessions dating back to the day he walked out of the halfway house. (Trouble Man’s “G Season” was one of the first five tracks he recorded, he says.) The project, which features production by Rico Love, Pharrell Williams and T-Minus, among others-as well as appearances by a range of marquee artists including P!nk, Cee Lo Green, R. Kelly, B.o.B, Kendrick Lamar and OutKast’s Andre 3000 (who delivers a head-spinning verse on the Williams-produced “Sorry”) – is both a showcase for T.I.’s reintroduction to music and an exercise in juice.
It’s been two years since T.I.’s last album, “No Mercy,” bowed at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 with 159,000 sold in its first week, according to SoundScan. That project, which arrived Dec. 7, 2010, after T.I. had already checked back into FCI Forrest City, failed to deliver a runaway hit — lead single “Get Back Up,” featuring Chris Brown, stalled out at No. 70 on the Hot 100 — and was widely regarded as a disappointment, crippled by T.I.’s incarceration. No Mercy has sold 588,000 to date, a stark contrast to 2008′s “Paper Trail,” which boasted back-to-back No. 1 singles in “Whatever You Like” and the Rihanna-assisted “Live Your Life,” and set the stage for the blockbuster performance of “Swagga Like Us” alongside Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and a very pregnant M.I.A. at the 2009 Grammy Awards. “Paper Trail” bowed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with a hefty 568,000 sold.
When T.I. first reported to FCI Forrest City, in May 2009, to serve a sentence of a year and a day for federal gun charges after attempting to illegally purchase machine guns and silencers from a bodyguard turned federal informant in October 2007 just hours before the BET Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta, he walked in riding a wave of success buoyed by the strong performance of “Paper Trail,” a newly minted Grammy (for best rap performance by a duo or group for “Swagga Like Us”) and a hit TV show, MTV’s “Road to Redemption,” which chronicled T.I.’s community efforts in the lead-up to his jail time.
When he walked out the second time, in September of last year, he was widely regarded as a question mark. In the wake of his 2010 arrest — for violating the terms of his probationary release on the gun charges by failing a drug test administered after the L.A. traffic stop — many critics, fans and brands turned on him. Axe and Remy Martin both walked away from endorsement deals, and influential hip-hop website RapRadar.com called No Mercy the worst album of 2010. T.I., who kicked in the door for street-savvy solo Southern rappers with their sights set on mainstream success (a door that Lil Wayne would later skate through to the tune of 1 million sold in his first week), was considered by many to be a has-been.
For T.I. and his team, the past 14 months have been all about challenging and, ultimately, changing that perception.
Read the full interview here at: Billboard