A case for T.I. as hip-hop's greatest of all time.
Certain rappers build a legacy that ends up being so complex, it's truly hard to define. In fact, each and every generation features artists that help shift the course of rap permanently, making it hard to remember the days from before our current climate. To that end, it's easy to forget how much of the past two decades in rap music have been characterized by the domination of Atlanta, a city that’s produced some of the greatest rappers in the genre's history. Names like Outkast, Ludacris, Gucci Mane and many more have become massive icons in the culture, leading to a large development of sub-movements within the confines of the South's hip-hop scene, such as the creation of trap rap, crunk, snap, the "futuristic" or "swag rap" movement, and the rebirth of trap. Among those who were instrumental in shaping and evolving the ATL's sound, one rapper who has stood the test of time and become a massive influence on the culture, through both his music and his seemingly everpresent personal chaos. That man is Clifford Harris, aka T.I.
When you look back at the earliest records from T.I. (who was then running around as T.I.P.), you can see why, even at a young age, the rapper was being showcased to industry veterans like the Dungeon Family and L.A. Reid. A former drug dealer who was influenced by the stylistic mastery and effortless flows of Jay-Z, as well as the pervasively emotional content of Tupac, Harris was barely out of his teens when he signed his first record deal on LaFace records. His debut album, I’m Serious, is widely considered a misstep, one that the rapper himself has since distanced himself from. Despite that, quality moments such as the heartfelt “Still Ain’t Forgave Myself” or his very first collaborations with Atlanta legend DJ Toomp, such as “Dope Boyz,” pointed to the future direction of T.I.'s music and, by association, of Atlanta's in general. Unfortunately, due to I’m Serious’ failure to become a commercial hit and disagreements in vision with L.A. Reid, T.I. was dropped from the label and forced to regroup.
This early setback notwithstanding, T.I. didn’t allow himself to be discouraged or cast aside as a "could have been" prospect. Instead, he met now-legendary mixtape figure DJ Drama and proceeded to begin a campaign with his P$C team that would slowly reinvigorate his career on the streets, in a way that the major label system wasn't willing to do for him at the time. Nowadays, mixtapes are commonly used with this kind of goal in mind, but in the very early 2000's, most mixtapes were DJ-acquired compilations of freestyles from established industry stars. While NY-based acts like the Diplomats and G-Unit, as well as Houston’s Screwed Up Click, had already pioneered the formula, it was T.I. who really seemed to define how the mixtapes could turn you from a label casualty into a hot commodity without any radio airplay. In a pre-Youtube, pre-streaming world that hadn't completely harnessed the power of digital downloading, T.I.’s In Da Streets series and his participation in the Gangsta Grillz franchise helped to establish him as a big star and, in the process, redefined the rap industry's consumption model. Were it not for T.I., music industry politics might still be based on antiquated forms of P.R., media circuits and payola, instead of the grassroots movements that have become the norm in the latter half of this decade.
After a show-stealer of a verse on Bonecrusher’s “Neva Scared”, T.I. was in high-demand again and soon found his Grand Hustle imprint signed to Atlantic, where he dropped his sophomore album Trap Muzik. Whereas I’m Serious had often been full of rather generic attempts at a commercial crossover, this time T.I. knew exactly what his audience was looking for and how to deliver. It didn’t matter if it was the crunk banger “24’s”, the wild and nervy “Rubberband Man” or the beginnings of his T.I. vs. T.I.P. saga of inner battles, T.I.'s persona became that of a complex individual battling materialism, morals and anybody who dared to cross him. Interestingly, despite being perhaps one of the earliest examples of "trap rap," most of the production was sample-based and had a soulful vibe which serves as a stark contrast from the bombast and studio-designed productions that would later dominate the genre. After all, this was still the "get crunk" era, with producers such as Zaytoven, Shawty Redd and Drumma Boy holding it down as regional acts and still a few years removed from complete domination of the scene.
T.I. would proceed to rise through the ranks of rap as an up-and-coming star, but he never did so without controversy. He had several incarceration stints to his name and also found himself in feuds with the likes of both S.U.C.’s Lil’ Flip (then himself a rising star) and fellow Atlanta icon Ludacris. By the time his third album, Urban Legend, was released, T.I. appeared to be working overtime to prove himself against a growing stable of naysayers. Whether it was working within the confines of the East Coast sound (“Bring ‘Em Out”), West Coast (“My Life”) or with his southern fanbase in mind (“ASAP”, “U Don’t Know Me”, etc.) T.I. just seemed at complete ease with his rapping. When Destiny’s Child tagged him and Lil’ Wayne for the now-classic “Soldier” remix, no other rappers were more appropriate or hotter nationwide at the time. By the time the Grammy-nominated KING album emerged, a release that would go Platinum multiple times over, T.I. didn’t just feel like the biggest Atlanta-raised rapper of his era, he felt like the biggest Southern rapper of all time.
Nowadays, seeing that same T.I. from the early 2000's has become increasingly difficult. He's become a father, reality TV star, and, despite putting out numerous albums of fairly consistent quality, the enthusiasm sent his way from listeners has been a situation of diminishing returns. However, that’s not to say T.I. has become stale as a performer. In recent years, his music has often taken a much more political bent, perhaps reflective of his influence and stature among a rap scene that, alongside Jeezy and Gucci Mane, is modeled in T.I.’s image. Furthermore, between his rapping career and his (often debated) successes as an actor, his work as a tastemaker with Grand Hustle is unparalleled. Not only was he a helping hand for veteran southern rappers such as Killer Mike, 8Ball & MJG and B.G. when they were considered less than commercially desirable, but he was also an early champion of B.O.B., the Rich Kidz (of whom founding member Rich Kid Shawty was a member), pre-MMG Meek Mill and grime MC Chip as well as the constantly underrated ATL-based producers Nard & B.
It is hard to imagine what the rap game would be in 2018 had T.I. not been such a transformative force as a rapper and an artist. The quality and density of his catalog, which includes strong outings on mixtapes, as a featureed artist and on studio albums, is something to admire. He journeyed from pop to street without breaking a sweat. He also remains an underrated mind in the rap game as a businessman and a lyricist, but manages to maintain his charisma and his skill in front of the mic. T.I. may no longer feel like the King of the South, but he continues to stake his claim as one of the greatest of all time.