Throughout his decade-and-a-half-long career, T.I. has dabbled in social commentary on his own terms. The directness of 2014’s “New National Anthem” comes to mind, as does the framing of the drug-dealing tale in 2003’s “Doin’ My Job.” Mostly, though, he’s built his star on a combination of anthems for the party and the streets.
But seeing the ongoing turmoil between police and black communities — fueled by a seemingly endless stream of men and women of color killed in confrontations with police, many captured on film — Tip took a singular, focused approach to social commentary with his latest offering, Us or Else. The EP, which was released on Friday (Sept. 23), along with its accompanying music videos, examines the conditions surrounding those police brutality incidents and stereotypes against minorities. And it’s all packaged with Tip’s typically hurricane-like flows (“We Will Not” is particularly remarkable) and rattling production.
While in New York this week, T.I. spoke with Billboard about the circumstances that inspired the project, his role as a parent in the current climate and NFL star Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem.
Was there a specific moment where you were first inspired to go into the studio in this way?
No. I record consistently. So I never really planned, “OK, I’m gonna go in the studio.” But the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile murders that took place in July, they compelled me to do something — and I didn’t know what something was. It was everything from protesting to meeting with the people who I know experienced similar times in history, and formulated plans that contributed to the progression of the people. If I’m doing that during the day or that night, I’m gonna be in the studio so, quite naturally, it just happened.
It’s just six songs and 22 minutes. Did you want to keep it concise for a particular reason?
I did. I felt like you can’t make it long because if you make it too long, people are going to get tired of the message. I didn’t want to make it too mainstream. I wanted to make sure that it had a niche, a purpose, its own lane.
How do you toe the line between being preachy and being direct?
You tell the truth with no real personal gain. I ain’t making no ton of money doing this shit. I’m just doing it because I feel like this is what somebody needs to say, and needs to say in layman’s terms. I think that if you get too sophisticated with your wording, it can kind of get lost in translation. You gotta break it all down like how it affects the blue collar, everyday working man on the street. How does this affect him or her? And once you can be the voice for those people, it’s not preaching, it’s just acknowledging the obvious.
Some of the features, like Killer Mike and Big K.R.I.T., seem to make sense, given the topic. On the other side, I think people may be surprised to see Quavo or Meek Mill, but they all work really well. How and why did they each come together?
I wanted people who weren’t necessarily expected to speak on the topic to speak on the topic. So when “Black Man” came together, Quavo came in, and we were actually doing “Baller Alert.” I played a couple songs that I had from the EP, and he was like, “Oh, OK, cool.” We pulled up another beat and he did that. I want the young cats that are out there running the streets the most — who probably feel like, “That’s something for 30-year-olds” — need to know that no matter what your voice chooses to say, you need to speak on it because y’all are dealing with it the most. Plus, I think it reaches the people who need it the most when it comes from the people you least expect to say it. Meek’s always been a little brother to me. When I reached out to him, he definitely concurred.
K.R.I.T. has amazing potential as an artist. He also has a very broad mind. If you actually sit down and have a conversation with him, or if you take the time to sit down and listen to any of his mixtapes in totality, you’ll see that he’s a diverse, multi-faceted individual, and I know his passion on the topic. So when I ran into him, I just asked him to do [“Switching Lanes”], sent it to him, and he was eager to do it. I was humbled and blessed to have him.
Killer Mike was actually in the studio with me when Rossi and RaRa played “40 Acres” for me. Killer Mike was like, “Yeah, I’m gonna get on it.” So I did mine and sent it to him. Mike is probably one of the most well-versed on the subject within the music community, so that was an easy one.
Is there a particular incident in your life, like an interaction with police, where you felt particularly fearful for your safety or well-being?
I believe I’m somewhat numb to it as many times as I’ve dealt with police. I know enough about how to deal with ‘em and I can see which ones to talk to and not to talk to just by looking at ‘em. I know who’s going to be receptive to what I’m about to say, and I know when my message will fall on deaf ears. I just got a feel for it. Any time you engage with the police, there’s the opportunity for things to go bad and as long as you know that first, then you kind of minimize the chances of it going bad.
If you see my hands at all times, there’s no reason for you to pull a gun, use your gun, or your Taser for that matter. So I try to keep my hands in clear sight and articulate myself very calmly, without raising my voice, without inflections, and just appeal to the logical side of their minds. Say things that make sense. I don’t care what you do for a living — nobody wanna hear nobody kicking no dumb shit.
As a father, how do you approach everything that’s going on as far as explaining to your kids what they’re seeing in the news, or how you want them to handle themselves in any given situation?
Well, it’s very difficult for me to explain. I take that back. It’s not difficult for me to explain, it’s difficult for them to actually wrap their minds around the reality, just because they’re so incubated. They don’t really know. My older sons, Messiah and Domani, see it and know that it’s messed up.
How old are they now?
15 and 16. King, who’s my next older son, is 12, and he’s very advanced for his age. He’s experienced racism, so it’s very difficult when they’ve been faced with stuff like that. They’re observing things that they don’t understand, for real. You gotta try and find a way to connect with them so they can apply it.
Are you fearful as they’re at that age where they can go out on their own and drive around?
I’m definitely concerned. I think fear impedes on faith. I am concerned, but I got faith that it’ll work out.
On “We Will Not,” you rap, “See what happens when athletes no longer play for you.” Starting with Colin Kaepernick’s protest, we’ve seen a lot of athletes — from high school to college to pro, men and women, black and white — protest during the anthem. What are your thoughts on that as well as the reactions?
I support it wholeheartedly. I think that’s the perfect way to use your platform and peacefully protest. I think it’s more paying respects to the victims than necessarily protesting. I’ve never seen so many people so up in arms about something that should be so insignificant to them. It’s almost like, “How dare you speak up for yourself? How dare you not lay there and take it?” I don’t understand. If this is not acceptable, what is?
I think that the approach that Kaepernick takes in taking a knee is the same approach a soldier would take to pay respects to casualties of war, soldiers that lost their lives on the battlefield. They would take a knee. So Kaepernick is treating the victims of these atrocities as casualties of war, and I think that is respectful. The only way you could have a problem with that is if you truly devalue the lives of minorities.