T.I.: The Billboard Cover Story
"People keep expecting me to fail. I'm going to continue to be huge." Inside the making of T.I.'s "Trouble Man."
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.
T.I. COVERS BILLBOARD
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.
The day before he was scheduled to turn in "Trouble Man," his last album under his current deal with Atlantic, T.I. spoke to Billboard about where he's been and where he's going, and how he hopes to get there from here.
You're turning in the album tomorrow. How does it feel?
[laughs] It's a blessing. It's a blessing to be at this stage in my career and continue to have, I guess, enough relevance to have an anticipated project. I'm real proud of it -- I just hope everybody else will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it.
You recorded more than 100 songs for the album, right?
Yeah, it was like 126, 127, something like that.
Do you usually do that much work going into an album?
This might be the first time we cracked 100. Usually it's like 50 or 60. There's always an abundance of material.
Originally, you were looking at an early fourth-quarter, late third-quarter release. Now, here we are moving into December. Why the date shift?
It wasn't ready. I knew that this was a moment for me, and I had to dedicate the necessary time, attention and energy to ensuring that it would be of the classic proportion that I feel the fans deserve. I could have settled. I could have put an album out in September, but I still was on probation, which would have limited the amount of travel that I could do. So that was another factor that was extremely important. And all the songs that I've done since then, they take it over the top.
You mentioned the significance of this album for your career. Can you talk a bit about that?
It goes without saying that it's hard to attain a certain level of success. And it's hard to maintain this level of success and even more difficult when one is separated from your environment, especially if you're separated from the environment due to negative reasons. So coming back, most people aren't able to. And if you try to come back and you don't make it, it's probably lights out. To half-ass and take it lightly could end up catastrophic.
Looking back on "No Mercy," how do you feel about it?
Mixed feelings. On one hand, I feel like that was a throwaway project because if I never would've went to prison, it would have been completely different. On another hand I feel, "Man, I wasted some great songs on this project." "Poppin' Bottles" with Drake; "Castle Walls," the one with Christina Aguilera; and the Pharrell [Williams] record, "Amazing"-all of those records, if they were on another project or if I was present to work it the right way and wasn't going through what I was going through, those would be huge records. So I look back at it and I don't regret it. It is what it is. It's on me.
There are those who say that when rappers go to jail it makes them hot. What's your take on that?
I tell you what: If it did, I'd give it back in a second for the time that I lost. I can say that it has made me more famous, and people probably know my situation more than they know my music. However, it also interrupted a lot of very lucrative and noteworthy opportunities. In my case, I lost as much as I gained, probably.
You lost a lot of corporate sponsorships along the way. How are you finding those conversations today, now that you've been out for a year?
A lot of people are open to it. Everyone knows that America has a short-term memory and they're very forgetful and forgiving. I mean, I haven't even went out and checked. Don't get me wrong. When it's time to sponsor events for us, we don't have a shortage of takers. A lot of people want to be associated with our brand to create awareness of their brand, and they recognize our relevance and our influence on the marketplace.
Now as far as people calling to make me the face of their brand, there has been nothing that I have taken seriously as of yet. People have inquired about building brands around my face and about building brand-new brands from scratch more so than associating me to an existing brand, with the exception of the Atlanta Hawks. We've had this very, very positive working relationship with the Atlanta Hawks for quite some time, and just recently they called me to broadcast two quarters of the Hawks game when they played the Miami Heat for Fox Sports South, and I had fun. They would like to further the relationship and see how we could do more together.
There's obviously a good track record for music and NBA partnerships.
You know what? Right now, I'm so focused on "Trouble Man," I'm not even really looking past Dec. 18. For this to be the absolute best body of work it could be, I had to turn stuff down. I had to have tunnel vision. Of course, I broke away for a month or two and I went and I did a movie. And I did a season of "Boss." But when I was doing that, when my attention was divided, the music wasn't working. So it required me to totally shut everything else off and dedicate myself 100% just in building this album. And that's the mind-set that I'm in: how to create the most awareness and anticipation for this album to be a classic.
Do you have your eye on a big spring tour?
Yeah, definitely. I just got to see what the most lucrative, reasonable opportunity is for me. I would like to focus more on my international presence. Due to my circumstances, a lot of people that know my music, know who I am and want to see me, but haven't had the opportunity because I haven't been afforded the opportunity to travel abroad. Now that I can, I would like to strengthen my international presence. I've never been to Africa. I've never been to China. Aside from seeing the world and living life, it's leaving a lot of money on the table.
For an artist of my caliber, the global awareness of T.I. being a multiplatinum artist is probably the weakest of all the other multiplatinum artists simply because I haven't gone. Usually when most people take time to go do a tour, I do a movie. When they do international dates, I do a movie. And that's why I'm probably the strongest in film of the multiplatinum artists because I took the time to do movies rather than touring abroad. So it's a balance. Just like Justin Timberlake, he took time off music completely to only focus on film, and that's probably why he's the most strongly recognized singer-slash-actor in the game today. You put time into things and cultivate these opportunities and the amount of effort and energy you put in is the amount of result you'll see back from it-if you're any good at least.
What is it about acting do you enjoy? Is it the process? The payday? The exposure?
To be honest, all of the above. Well, I can't say the payday. I ain't had a huge payday yet. But it's a different level of respect associated with it and it surprises people. I enjoy shocking the shit out of folks. And at this level in my career, I can make an outstanding, phenomenal album, I can release an insanely successful and critically revered single, but people are going to say, "Ah, yeah, that's T.I., he's been doing that for years." Now, if I happen to be in a critically acclaimed film nominated for a Golden Globe or an Academy Award, then people are surprised and shocked.
Through the years, you've mentioned different people being supportive of everything you've gone through, including Eminem. Who else has been there to help?
As you mentioned, of course, Em. He was extremely supportive and inspirational during that time. Busta Rhymes, Puffy, Lyor Cohen, Russell Simmons, Nelly, David Banner, Charlie Mack, Will Smith. Will actually went as far as getting in touch with [attorney general] Eric Holder and the Obama administration trying to see if we could get some kind of release. He was very politely told that was not possible. [laughs]
It was the last time I was going back, and I was going to court for my probation violation. He was in deep discussions about it. And he's been a huge contributor to the administration, and I mean not just in finances, I'm talking about time and other kinds of efforts, so it ain't like his words were falling on deaf ears. But I understood. I didn't even expect no help. I didn't expect nobody to be able to help me. I knew I made my bed and I knew I had to lay in it.