Thursday, July 22, 2010

The King is back, but just because he's learned a lesson doesn't mean he's abdicating the throne. Storm the castle, and he might just have to defend himself.

The last time T.I. got down with Complex—in September 2007—he was wrapping up one hell of a two-year run, with platinum plaques for his previous two albums and an acting career on the upswing. Barely a month later, he would find himself facing a 30-year bid for federal weapon charges. Sure, he used his pre-trial house arrest to record his most personal and successful album ever (Paper Trail). And yeah, he managed a nifty plea deal that landed him a mere 10 months in jail. But he was still off the streets for almost a year. So while his agenda is full—his highly anticipated comeback,King Uncaged, drops in August—He needs to be a different man. He's taken his tale of reform on the road since his release, and his narrative is unwavering: no he won't be getting into trouble again. Yes, those days are behind him. It's a kinder, gentler Tip. Of course, a few days later, he releases the mixtape  Fuck A Mixtape, where he repeatedly mentions that he doesn't have guns anymore...but he'll still stab the shit out of someone. Being a different man has its limits.

On Paper Trail, you wrote your rhymes on paper for the first time since your debut. How about for King Uncaged?
T.I.: Nah, I switched it back up—at that time I was looking for something different. So now I already had that different sound. I wrote ideas down, but not complete songs. Ideas, lines, titles, songs, thoughts about hooks.
You don't seem like a "raps in your BlackBerry" type.
 I'll give you an example. [T.I. shows his BlackBerry. The Memos section has various entries with titles like "Lines," "New," and "Songs," which has collections of bars written.] I'll [write] about six bars and when I get in the booth, I'll stop there and then complete it. Most of these came to me when I was on a plane or in the car.

How has having such big pop smashes on your last album influenced your musical direction on this album?
T.I.: There was a whole new audience introduced to T.I. by records like "Live Your Life" and "Dead and Gone." I don't think that I can properly maintain that same fan base if I don't cater to them at some point. I got records that are way more left-field, mainstream, and universal than I've ever had. I got records that would be equivalent to Usher doing "OMG" with I got a record called "Out of Control" that RedOne did. It's a party record; Nelly said it sounded like Las Vegas club music.
The last time you were on our cover, you mentioned retirement. Three years later, on "I'm Back," you mention retiring again.
T.I.: I'm kickin' 30 down this year, so it's about time to start thinking about an exit strategy. I'm not saying this is my last album or the next album is my last album, but I don't see myself rappin' for 10 or 20 more years. Although I could. Let's say I do it for five more years, and after that, when I do an album, it'll be an event. It's not going to be day in, day out. Maybe every two or three years, a world tour, the whole shebang.
But you see artists like Jay-Z making great albums at 40.
T.I.: It can be done, but at the same time, Jay's method is for Jay. I ain't seen nobody else take that model and use it to their advantage.
Eminem is still making great music at 37. He's pushing the boundaries when most people have fallen off.
T.I.: True, but if I do that at that late an age, I'm taking away from all the other opportunities that I have. I want to have an Oscar by then. I want to have made my mark in film as a producer and actor by the time I'm Jay's or Eminem's age.
As you get older, have your musical tastes changed?
T.I.: I do listen to some rock. I like Maroon 5 a lot. I try to get into stuff like The Fray. I dig the Gorillaz. I didn't listen to their whole album, but all the shit that comes out I fuck with; I dig the movement and the whole idea of it. I think the shit is creative.
You've mentioned being a big fan of Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak, even comparing it to Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear. Why did you make the comparison?
T.I.: All of the songs from 808s & Heartbreak—from the title of the album to every song on there—you can tell that it was speaking of and about a relationship that went bad. Every song was made as an open letter for someone, and I think that those two projects have that in common. It was the coolest shit in modern day since I heard Andre 3000's The Love Below.
What were your favorite tracks on 808s?
T.I.: The first record off the album, "Say You Will." ["Paranoid"] was a jamming-ass song to me. "Street Lights." It was one of those albums where I put it in my car, leave the house, and ride that motherfucker top to bottom over and over again 'til I get back in the house. Or if I'm entertaining, I'll put that motherfucker in at the beginning of the night and just let that ride all night long, the same way I do with both The-Dream's albums, Trey Songz, and Keri Hilson. I can ride to their shit, too.
B.o.B. just scored the first number-one album for a Grand Hustle artist who wasn't you. How different was it working with him as opposed to other artists on your label?
T.I.: B.o.B. ain't the type of artist you gotta be very hands-on with, because he's already visualized his direction. He came to me and said, "Tip, I need something more urban, but still out-there," and we did "5th Dimension." Then other times, he's like, "I'm just really trying to break into the urban market," so he brought me records like "Bet I."
Was it important to you that he have those kinds of records for credibility since he has such big pop smashes?
T.I.: If you start off out there in that world, you have nothing to come back to. Although it may seem like he started off out there in that world, he started off with "Haterz Everywhere" and "I'll Be In the Sky." Just because his biggest records are pop records, it's still important that he has history in the urban market. So, if ever, for some strange reason, the pop shit don't work, he has something to come back to.
Was it a conscious decision from Grand Hustle to take him in that direction?
T.I.: Nah, I didn't make any decision to take him in a direction. We did a lot of [the album] before I went away. The singles came together while I was away. I was involved as an executive producer and a president. I try to be as involved or as uninvolved as the artist needs me to be. I think that's the best thing for an executive producer; to know when to step in, take charge, make suggestions, and just let the artist do their thing creatively.
Are you a fan of any of the other new artists in the rap game, like Kid Cudi or Wiz Khalifa?
T.I.: Who?
Wiz Khalifa.
T.I.: I don't know him. Kid Cudi, I haven't heard enough. I like Donnis. I think Yelawolf got outstanding talent and potential. I've been knowing him. Drake's the shit.
You told Larry King you're a "retired gangster." Does that limit what you can rap about creatively?
T.I.: Nah. I can rap about guns in the context in which I need to rap about them. I could rap about the past. I can rap about not needing a gun. I can rap about other ways of doing things if that's what I choose to rap about. I can't change who I am on the inside. That'll shine through with no gun, no drugs. Fundamentally, who I am and what I stand for is still the same.
On Fuck a Mixtape, you make several references to having knives now instead of guns— and to stabbing people.
T.I.: It's within your rights to do anything to protect your well-being, right? That's well within the law. If my life is being threatened, I have every right, legally, to protect my life and my loved ones. So that wouldn't be getting in trouble at that point. Everybody takes everything so literal and so…I don't know. You could spit on the concrete in public and get the same reaction: "Oh, I thought Tip was done getting in trouble. What is he doing spitting on the concrete? What is he doing jaywalking?" The best thing I can do is continue to live my life the best way I know how.
At the end of "Yeah You Know," you said, "Prison ain't changed me, it made me worse." In what sense did you mean that?
T.I.: When I was goin' through it, I really felt like it added insult to injury. The lesson had already been learned. I already understood the errors in my ways and made the adjustments necessary. It did make me worse in a sense that, before I went in, I was already on a path of positivity. Putting me in prison took me off that path a little bit, and now I'm working to get back on that path—or at least back on the path to the extent that I was before I went in. I'm still not as bad as I was before this incident, but I lost a little bit of my positive focus during that period of incarceration. Being in that environment and having those daily surroundings, it's going to affect you.
Was there an album that helped you get through your incarceration?
T.I.: I didn't listen much to records when I was in there. Music is what I do every day. That made me more homesick than anything. I didn't watch videos. I watched series like Sons of Anarchy. I'm a fan. It's another form of The Sopranos to me. I watched football and ESPN. Another thing we watched wasHung. It had a good idea, but it depends on where they go from here. They watched a lot of that True Blood. I couldn't really do that. They got into that shit heavy. The whole prison damn near shut down. Everybody left off the yard, like, "True Blood coming on!" They went crazy for it—there's a bunch of sex in it, so they were tuning in for that.
In terms of making changes in your life to avoid getting into trouble again, did you cut down on going to clubs?
T.I.: I don't go out as much.
Is that an age thing or to stay out of trouble?
T.I.: Both. When people know when to expect you, they can plan for you. If they don't know when to expect you, and you pop in and pop out, you can show up and kick it for a little while, and they can't really plan for that. And I'm just uncomfortable having no tool. Even when I have security. I'm more comfortable knowing there's one around—but not having one myself, being used to having one for so long and being in places and around people that I know got 'em, I'm just uncomfortable. So I stay out of that environment as much as possible.
Are there certain moves you might avoid now? Like filming the video for "What's Up, What's Haapnin" in Bowen Homes at the time of the Shawty Lo beef?
T.I.: Some of 'em. That move in particular, I wouldn't say. I didn't go there with a sense of hostility. I wasn't there in your face. I was there doin' my thing. It was just as much my hood as anyone else's. That was different than me going to Houston [to Lil Flip's Cloverland neighborhood]. A move like that, I wouldn't do that now.
Were you happy to see two of your good friends, Young Jeezy and DJ Drama, put aside their differences?
T.I.: I thought that was real big of both of them. I started the idea of them sitting down and speaking. We all sat down, but it seemed to unravel shortly thereafter. It was either Jeezy's homeboys or Drama's homeboys, or something Jeezy said, or something Drama said—maybe it was something said before the sitdown that came out after. I think it was just a matter of time. It's only so many tickets you can sell to the feud. It's only so long motherfuckers even care about beef unless it escalates and escalates. Now, it's in both parties' interest to unite for the same reasons, like Jay and Nas. People look for dramatic events, and another dramatic event is when you get together.
Speaking of reconciling, have you had an opportunity to listen to Gucci Mane's "My Worst Enemy," where he apologizes to you for making comments about Tiny?
T.I.: Nah, man. I heard about it. For real, I ain't really wrapped up in that. I'm living my life. I'm not paying a lot of attention to other people's lives. If they not in my circle, what they do is they business. I don't have any ill will toward anyone. At the end of the day, what they eat don't make me shit. I'm not all wrapped up in what the next person is saying about me, whether or not they've apologized to me. That's real childish. I'm beyond that.
Do you and Gucci have any kind of personal relationship at all?
T.I.: I recognize potential and talent and opportunity. But as far as a personal relationship, I don't have his phone number. We don't talk on the phone every day. But I wish him nothing but the best.
Did it bother you when people—and Gucci himself—started saying he was the hottest rapper in Atlanta?
T.I.: I don't even worry about opinions. Only the truth matters to me. He's supposed to feel like that. For you to be a rapper and not feel like you the hottest person on Earth, then you're wasting your time. Whoever feels like they the hottest, wherever they are, they doing what they supposed to do.
So whoever wants to say they're the hottest rapper in Atlanta, it doesn't matter to you.
T.I.: Nah, man. Nobody can take away from my title by feeling like they hot. In order for them to be the hottest, I have to see them being the hottest thing in Atlanta. My music speaks for itself. My influence speaks for itself. You can be the hottest right now, but that's only because I ain't dropped yet. When we drop shit at the same time, then we gonna see who gets more burn. When they drop your record in the club, then they drop mine, we gonna see who get more of a reaction. When your first-week numbers come in, we gonna see who have more sales. You or me. Saying you the hottest? You have that right—but when it's time to show and prove, we gonna see who really deliver.

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