After 13 years recording for major labels and releasing nine total studio albums, T.I. is completely aware that he can be set in his ways when it comes to his musical identity. His methodology for recording new material hasn’t changed. T.I. listens to the music, finds the right beat, develops his ideas around the track as it plays and doesn’t write any lyrics down.
On the charismatic rapper’s latest release, Paperwork, the confident emcee still embellishes in a few excesses and luxuries on wax synonymous with superstardom. The co-founder of the Grand Hustle imprint puffs on extremely potent marijuana (“Jet Fuel”), enjoys a good striptease (“Private Show,” “At Ya Own Risk”), spits rapid fire bars bragging about his skills as an emcee (“King”), keeps it real in mainstream music (“G’Shit”) and focuses on getting paid (“About The Money”).
T.I. asserts that his previous releases are “a little more turnt than Paperwork.”
“I’m very foundational,” says T.I. prior to the Atlanta Hawks’ season opener against the Indiana Pacers. “I don’t go outside of myself that much. It works to my advantage in some ways, but there’s also room to venture out of that comfort zone and broaden it.”
This time around, the 34-year-old Atlanta born Clifford Joseph Harris, Jr. brings another approach to both his music and business acumen. For one, the remainder of Paperwork’s 64-minute, soul-influenced run time gives the uncompromising performer space to be both socially conscious and vulnerable.
The self-proclaimed “King of the South” laments about death (“On Doe On Phil,” “Light It Up”), marriage (“Stay”), news headlines (“New National Anthem”), the consequences of fame (“Oh Yeah”) and coming to terms with his past (“Paperwork,” “About My Issue”).
Upon entering the Philips Arena conference room, T.I. walks right into a chorus of clicking camera flashes. The artist greets everyone and shakes many hands. Extremely polite, the slightly raspy-voiced star on the hit VH-1 reality show, T.I. and Tiny: The Family Hustle, loose raps about bringing his maturing sentiments to his music’s concepts.
“Growth and evolution are evident for any man,” says T.I. “My music has always been a reflection of my life and my lifestyle. My past, environment and circumstances are the inspiration for this record.”
T.I.’s deal under Atlantic landed the best-selling rapper four number ones and 17 Top 40 singles in the Billboard Hot 100. He’s sold over 14 million albums worldwide and 9.5 million digital singles in America.
The exceptional talent refuses to single out one project in his catalog. “My albums are like my children,” says T.I. “They have different pieces and parts of me. All of them are different; they’re not the same in any way. I don’t think one is more important than the other.”
Metaphorically speaking, T.I. uses colorful analogies to describe his new deal. He describes Atlantic as a “warehouse producing gold bars” and Columbia as “an art house.”
He’s at a point where he wants to put the music first and not the metrics. Packaged as a recurring set of releases, Paperwork is subtitled as The Motion Picture. This installment, T.I. says, is the first of a trilogy of albums to be released.
“The approach is completely different when it comes to presenting art,” says T.I. “For a long time, I made a wonderful living producing bars. When we did it, we did it the best that anybody could do it. Right now, I’m tired of looking at the same gold bars. I’d rather go and do some sculptures and sell some Mona Lisas.”
Shipping 80,000 units in its opening week, Paperwork comes in at number two on the Billboard 200 album listing. The LP is also the first time T.I. and Oscar-nominated superproducer Pharrell Williams worked together on an entire project.
Williams is Paperwork’s executive producer. Recording the album gave both multiple Grammy winners the chance to find common ground and bring out good performances in each other.
“[Pharrell] is as abstract as it gets,” says T.I. “This was a more in-depth, meticulous process of going back and forth and challenging one another’s opinions. He pushed me past my creative limitations, taking me out of my comfort zone and making something different sound familiar.”
The pair’s track record for creating memorable songs has yielded classics like “I’m Serious,” “What’s Yo Name?,” “Good Life” and the chart-topping “Blurred Lines.” T.I. backtracks during the conversation to address his creative complacency.
He believes Williams’ ability to turn the knobs on the recording console and steer his artistry into new territories makes him the ideal producer for Paperwork.
“For the sake of the concept and story, we did what was most appropriate,” adds T.I., “and sometimes that was a little different for me. We did a magnificent job on the entire project.”
Always a man about his business, T.I. is turning his attention on capitalizing more on his namesake. He’s already published two books, reaping the rewards of his urban apparel line, AKOO and makes numerous cameos as a critically acclaimed actor for both the small and silver screen.
He’s tight-lipped about a mobile app he’s developing. It’s important to T.I., one of hip hop’s quintessential hustlers, to continue to find avenues for creating multiple revenue streams since album sales are not generating much income for any artists.
“You make adjustments,” says T.I. “Life is a series of adjustments. If it’s not there, you get is elsewhere. There are so many other things to do to compensate with what we’re lacking in music.”
At halftime, the megastar changes into a vintage blue and green jersey and is joined by Young Thug to perform “About The Money.”
Once the Hawks’ take their 102 win over Pacers’ 92, T.I. performs a four-song medley before a sold-out crowd consisting of “King,” “Top Back,” “What You Know” and “Live Your Life.” He apologizes to the audience for the sound going in-and-out.
He couldn’t hear out his earpiece, so it delays his performance in a few places. Despite technical difficulties, T.I., an avid Hawks fan, enjoys being able to show love to his hometown. He cheers for the home team but gets a kick out of heckling at the opposing team.
“This is fun for us,” he says. “This is me being a fan of my hometown team and showing them support. Every year at the beginning, I’m the most optimistic that we will make it deep into the playoffs.”
Even though the Hawks made headlines this past summer when it was revealed that owner Bruce Levenson made racially motivated comments relating to the franchise’s demographics, T.I. believes steps such as his appearance and the team revitalizing its old logo are appropriate measures for redefining the team’s image.
“Atlanta is a city of culture and diversity,” he says, “and hip hop is a part of Atlanta. All of these components must click on the most productive level in order for the city to thrive.”
From the time T.I. enters the suite to when he exits Philips Arena, he is friendly, warm and expresses his gratitude to people that cross his path. He’s fully aware of his role as both a celebrity and public figure.
Still, he’s as confident about his future as he’s always been on his records, but for now, T.I. will continue to do what he does best: make honest music that reflects where he is in his life.
“The more you know, the more you’re able to apply your knowledge to benefit your life and the people that matter most,” he says. “There’s so much to tell, but I don’t know how. The object is to complete the journey and make it to the desired destination. It’s as simple as that.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.