T.I. is enjoying an incredible run. His discography presents that which most rappers aim for and only a handful can claim they have achieved. The fact that Tip is still going strong, with a successful label, TV shows, movies and not to mention a newly released ninth album, is just unfair. Fifteen years since he released I'm Serious, the self-proclaimed "King Of The South" is still "the top topic of all of your magazines" so it was only right that we flew out to Paris to catch up with him for the main feature of this one.
T.I. is visibly excited to talk about his latest LP Paperworks, a title that will likely cast listeners thoughts back to 2008’s Paper Trail which refers to Tip reverting back to writing his raps on paper whilst on house arrest during his trial on gun charges. The association is intentional: “I must say I definitely wanted to outdo my present best, and I feel like Paper Trail has been considered the best, successful, most diverse album that I’ve released, so I’m definitely chasing trying to outdo that particular album,” he admits of his high intentions for the record.
There are numerous factors that make Paperworks a particularly notable release amongst T.I.'s catalogue; it is the first under his new deal with Columbia, it is executive produced by Pharrell Williams and it follows a guest appearance on one of the biggest songs of last year, Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines', which opened him up to a wider audience than ever before.
“I felt like we were working so closely together man, it was a no-brainer,” says Tip of the decision to have Pharrell executive produce. It was actually Pharrell’s influence that had him making his new home at Columbia, despite rumours of meetings with Jay-Z and Dr. Dre. “[Pharrell] actually introduced me to Rob Stringer and Ashley and the rest of the Columbia family at his wedding,” explains T.I. “So it was only right, and I felt like it made the most sense. We have an incredible chemistry together and we make phenomenal music, so we just felt like it was a no-brainer.”
Pharrell and T.I. have worked together since the inception of Tip’s career as a major label artist. After building a name for himself selling mixtapes out of his trunk in Atlanta, he signed a deal with with Arista, to release his debut album, the moderately received I’m Serious. This was where he began working with Pharrell for the first time. “I met up with him in Virginia to do a record for my first album and we ended up doing two, ‘What’s Yo Name’ and ‘I’m Serious’, and we’ve been working together ever since,” T.I. recalls of the initial meeting.
Several years later in a 2004 cover story for Vibe Pharrell called him ‘the Jay Z of the South’. “He laid it on pretty thick for me,” says T.I. of the comparison, in retrospect. “And I definitely am flattered and humbled and thrilled. Obviously, I recognise that was a huge thing to say. I’m going to be the best Tip of wherever and hopefully that will translate into me being the Jay-Z of the South. I just want to maximise off my potential.”
Maximising off potential is a great way to sum up the career that T.I. is enjoying. He pushes opportunities as far as he can without compromising his integrity and is one of the best examples of how rappers can utilise guest spots on other artists singles. For example, many rap fans first heard him via a guest verse on Bonecrusher's Neva Scared, yet in 2014 Tip is still a major name and Bonecrusher's long forgotten. Since that collaboration, T.I. has gone on to record with the likes of Destiny's Child, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and can also jump on a track with Killer Mike,
"Any time you’re able to collaborate and match wits and compare strategies with the greater minds of your generation, it’s always going to yield a high reward," T.I. explains of his ethos on collaboration. "I take my craft extremely seriously, and me collaborating with people who takes their craft just as seriously, if not more, than I - nothing can come of that than greatness. And that’s what we’re in this for, we’re in this for maximising off of our moments of greatness."
T.I. is the kind of artist who can appear on teen drama, The O.C., to perform a song about sticking a pistol down an enemy's throat, at a beach party that Seth Cohen is attending. His two sides, explored on the album T.I. vs T.I.P., widen his appeal and allow him to release polarising styles of record; T.I. for the easy-goingradio listeners and nightclub attendees, and Tip for the hardcore rap fans and hustlers.
Most artists who attempt this kind of versatility end up branded 'sell-out' and reach a point of no-return, or even worse, end up a one hit wonder that lost and street edge they had and ends up stripped entirely of relevance. T.I. is one of the rare artists with the ability to pull it off, due to a coolness of character, incredible (and dare we say still underrated) technical talent and an integrity that has him aware of exactly where the line is and not willing to cross it. "I think that ever since I began my career I’ve been incredibly diverse," he says. "I never allowed the industry or anyone to chase me into a box. I always continued to diversify, evolve, grow and try different things, and the more I did it, the more people accepted me doing it, and the more of an understanding I develop with the public.”
His most notable recent collaboration is undoubtedly Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines' which was conceived right in the middle of recording sessions for Paperworks. The infectious track and controversial video hadThicke, T.I. and Pharrell everywhere you looked for the majority of last year. Tip sees this as the perfect springboard for new fans to jump into Paperworks. 'I mean, it definitely broadened my horizons as an artist and definitely opened me up to different demographics," he says. "And I feel like now that we have their attention, we’re going to definitely seize the moment with the Paperworks project."
Like many rappers he has also taken advantage of the Internet, adding his own verses to popular songs and dropping them for the blogs as unofficial remixes. It’s an approach that he utilises similarly to his guest appearances explaining, “That’s how you broaden your market, that’s how you reach more people. You cross brand, you familiarise yourself with people who may not have ever even heard your music before, but they may be familiar with this person that you’re collaborating with.” He hopes that this will then inspire his new listeners to familiarise themselves with his own output, and get on board for the next release. “I think it’s a necessary tool when looking to expand,” he adds.
Another example of Tip’s versatility shows through the signees of his Grand Hustle imprint. Whether you’re a hardcore rap fan, a teenage girl who just listens to the radio or an avid blog reader hunting for cutting edge sounds, Grand Hustle has an artist for you. T.I. attributes this to his quest for undeniable quality. “I try not to over think it,” he says. “I try to just do what feels right, do what my instincts as an executive tell me to do as far as me being a fan of music, what moves me. And just staying true to that has gotten me this far.” Rather than housing a stable of artists that share stylistic qualities, Grand Hustle’s signees all appeal to different demographics, allowing the brand to spread further, similar to the cross branding that T.I. describes when talking about his remixes. Grand Hustle artists have put out some of the most highly regarded releases over the past few years, with Killer Mike’s R.A.P Music placing highly on many best-of lists at the end of 2012; Travi$ Scott breaking through as one of the most exciting new artists of 2013 with his Owl Pharaoh mixtape and following up with this year’s Days Before Rodeo; and Iggy Azalea dominating the radio waves this Summer with ‘Fancy’, from her Grammy award nominated album The New Classic.
He describes his own listening habits as being eclectic and mood based, offering, “I do listen to a lot of classics; classic hip-hop and classic soul, funk and R&B. I listen to all sorts of music, it just depends what kind of mood I’m in.” His kids try to put him up on new music, but he already has his ear to the street. “They try to,” he says, laughing. “But most of the time when they do I know these people months before they even hear of them! I’m closely connected.”
His acquaintances allowed him to link up with one of the year's most exciting - not to mention elusive - breakout stars, Young Thug, for the single that launched his Paperworks campaign. 'It Ain't About The Money' opens with the melodic ATLien warbling a rags to riches tale which cites collabing with Tip as a career pinnacle, over woozy production from London On Da Track. The song is a great example of T.I. balancing the past, present and the future; with a UGK reference in the hook, the inclusion of a future star in Thugga, and a very relevant instrumental that he rides with ease. "I told them to bring him by the studio, lets go in see what we got," says T.I. of the pairing. "He showed up and within 30 minutes to an hour we came up with that record."
With such a portfolio of achievements, the most intriguing thing about artists on T.I.'s level is what inspires them to continue creating. Tip is now focused on future generations. "It’s my will to win. My quest to have an outstanding legacy to leave my children and my grandchildren." And while Paperworks set out to improve upon the standard set by Paper Trail, neither record is necessarily his personal favourite. To him they all represent different eras of his career and that renders them inseparable, and while he wouldn't necessarily put in a copy of King and hit the play button himself, it doesn't mean he never reflects on his back catalogue. "Every now and again. I catch my kids or my cousins [listening]," he admits. "Every now and then I’ll listen; not in its entirety, just certain songs I might walk in the room while they’re being played. Sometimes I surprise myself! I don’t remember how good it was."
Originally published in BRICK edition one.