On top of this, T.I. was involved in a mini-feud with popular Houston rapper Lil' Flip over who deserves the tag, "King of the South." The two traded barbed verses back and forth on various mixtapes, fueling yet another hip-hop he said/he said.
The resulting hoopla gave the formerly underground MC a level of press attention that he had never before received. And like other legally troubled rappers before him -- Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent -- T.I. found that notoriety can be a career plus, and now, after years of being under the radar, he's one of the most-buzzed-about acts in hip-hop.
"It's funny to me," says T.I.'s manager Jason Geter who also runs the boutique label Grand Hustle with him. "I feel like we've been working [for a long time]." When T.I.'s debut album I'm Serious flopped in 2001, many counted him out of the rap game. People didn't know what to do with him. He was a Southern rapper who talked about life in the streets. To some this didn't fit the feel-good, party vibe of a lot of Southern hip-hop.
Geter thinks T.I., whom close associates call "Tip," was simply ahead of his time. "You hear a lot of people [who] you can tell were influenced by Tip," says the native New Yorker. "His influence, to me, was like when Nas came out, [and when] Jay-Z came out. People were running with his styles."
But it's finally T.I.'s time to enjoy the spotlight. His new single, "Bring 'Em Out," produced by sometime-Atlanta resident Swizz Beatz (DMX, Eve, Jadakiss), is a staple on B.E.T.'s video countdown show "106 and Park's." T.I. also graces Vibe's January cover and is a new spokesman for Jay-Z's S. Carter Reebok shoe line.
He has become so important to his label, Atlantic Records, that headman Lyor Cohen, formerly of the hip-hop behemoth Def Jam Records, flew to Atlanta in September for a special T.I. promotional party. Held at Silent Sounds studio, the event offered the opportunity for retailers, journalists and radio people to hear an early version of Urban Legend.
It offered an interesting peek at the work-in-progress, because some of the cuts were still unfinished. When T.I. played the Scott Storch-produced banger "Get Ya Shit Together," he asked the audience to imagine a female voice on the chorus. He wasn't yet sure if Missy, Trina or Lil' Kim would wind up on the actual song. (Kim ultimately agreed to do it, joining other guests like Nelly, Trick Daddy and Lil Wayne on the album.)
As folks bobbed their heads to the music, produced by such star power names as the Neptunes and Lil' Jon, T.I. spoke about his musical growth. He said he was apprehensive about the single (and future hit) "Bring 'Em Out," because of its off-beat sound, mixing various regional styles from New Orleans' zydeco to D.C.'s GoGo. But in order to not move too far away from his roots, T.I. included cuts like the gritty "U Don't Know Me," crafted by Atlanta rap legend, and one of T.I.'s earliest supporters, D.J. Toomp.
Before the listening session was over, T.I. asked folks for their opinions about what songs they liked, what worked and what didn't. It seemed like T.I. was trying to make an album that would allow him to put his troubles behind him and focus on business.
As he raps on "Bring Em Out": "If I catch another case/I know I'll truly be missed/So I'm gonna keep a cool head/Stay out of the news headlines/And show these other rappers it's bedtime."
T.I.'s new album Urban Legend is currently in stores.