It’s just after midnight and T.I. is waiting to go home from Teterboro, N.J.’s Atlantic airport in a private G-3 aircraft, courtesy of producer Wyclef Jean. The plane is equipped with 10 seats, a padded bench and an overeager stewardess tending to Atlanta’s favorite rapper and his three friends, who are indulging in a sh*t-talking game of spades over the cabin’s coffee table.
It’s all fun and games on the airplane, but the lighthearted banter may actually speak to a darker side of T.I. — a side that T.I. himself is showcasing in his upcoming album, “T.I. vs T.I.P.,” due July 3. Much of the public knows T.I. as the ultra-suave, super-stylish rapper, the guy who guests in Justin Timberlake videos and makes the ladies swoon. But hip-hop heads and those closest to T.I. know he’s a man fighting demons and thus fighting to hold onto his blistering career momentum. That’s the essence of T.I.’s new album. He is the pop star, focused on expanding his horizons and his bottom line. T.I.P. — a childhood nickname shortened to T.I. when the rapper signed his first deal, out of respect to Q-Tip — is the bad boy.
No doubt, life has been good. His last album, “King,” featured arguably the song of the year in 2006, “What You Know.” The song sat at No. 1 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart for six weeks and was the theme for the movie in which he starred, “ATL.” The album was one of the top sellers of the year, entering The Billboard 200 at No. 1 and moving 522,000 its first week. It has sold 1.7 million to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Then, in spring 2006, while his Grand Hustle label celebrated the release of its first artist, Young Dro, and his song, “Shoulder Lean,” earning the No.1 hip-hop slot in the country, Jive’s now-president of urban music, Mark Pitts, reached out to see if T.I. might be interested in working with Timberlake. The pop star’s “My Love” featuring T.I. hit No. 1 on The Billboard Hot 100, hurtling T.I. from hip-hop star to pop success. In the fall, T.I. was nominated for four Grammy Awards and won two for best rap solo performance for “What You Know” and best rap/sung collaboration for “My Love.”
His hot streak hasn’t stopped. Currently “Top Back,” from “King,” “Where They At,” from his upcoming album, and his feature on R. Kelly’s “I’m a Flirt” sit on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
But then T.I.P. — friends and label execs refer to him as “Tip” routinely — always seems to be lurking around the corner. In 1997, a pre-rap T.I.P. was arrested, convicted and sentenced to parole for drug charges and giving authorities a false name. Then in 2004, just as his “Rubberband Man” single was proving itself as a hit, T.I. turned himself in for violating parole and served roughly four months in Cobb County jail. Instead of promoting his sophomore album, “Trap Muzik,” T.I.P. sat behind bars. Upon his release, T.I.P., in response to what he felt were Houston MC Lil Flip’s disses, brandished photos of Flip dressed as a leprechaun at a local concert. The pair’s rivalry grew and culminated in a street-boxing match behind a few cars during a T.I. video shoot in Houston.
The new album mixes plenty of still-hood tracks — that would be T.I.P. — and some poppier moments. The just-released first official single, “Big Sh*t Poppin’,” produced by Mannie Fresh, could be a remix to “Top Back,” the last single from “King,” still on the charts. The new song’s repeatable chorus, “Big sh*t poppin’ and little sh*t stoppin’,” is classic T.I.P.
Though the album’s final sequence isn’t hammered out yet, Timbaland, Eminem, Danja Hands, Swizz Beatz, the Runners, Just Blaze, Scott Storch, Akon, Wyclef Jean and in-house Grand Hustle producer Lil C have lent their production talents to “T.I. vs T.I.P.” so far. One song, “Goodbye My Dear,” T.I. wrote and produced himself. The track sports lazy drums, a synthy piano and Ciara on the hook, while T.I. rhymes about why his relationship must end. It’s clearly a track aimed for the ladies.
“I can never go pop — the hood is in me,” T.I. says. “I’m just going for a different audience than I usually target. It’s not fair to me to keep talking about the same things. I’ve gone so far past the hood that I’ve got to talk about other things.”
The only question remaining is whether the rapper will be focused enough to stay out of trouble and promote his album. In other words, all his Grand Hustle signings, his executives at Atlantic and those closest to him will be waiting to see the winner of “T.I. vs T.I.P.”
The rapper says he’s confident. “Letting my rage and my temper get the best of me, like missing the second half of ‘Trap Muzik’ for serving a sentence-things like that, these are the things that hold me back,” he says. “These are the things that T.I.P. does to keep T.I. from getting where T.I. thinks he can be … The only person that can beat me is me.”