About two and a half years ago, we heard Will Smith endorse T.I. as, well, the next him, while the former was promoting 2006’s ATL. Smith, of course, had some take in ATL‘s box office outcome, as it was one of the first features, not starring Will Smith, that he and Jada’s Overbrook Entertainment produced.
Smith heralded T.I. (born Clifford Joseph Harris) for his natural screen presence, versatility, charisma, and work ethic, going so far as to assert that T.I. had the potential to become a major Hollywood player within the next five years. The irony wasn’t lost on us. Squeaky-clean, sitcom-starring, profane-rap-criticizing Will Smith was attempting to pass an entertainment torch to the felonious, drug-dealing, Parental Advisory Stamp-bearing T.I.?
We all know the rest of the story, right? Concurrently with ATL‘s release, T.I. won two Grammys for King, the CD he dropped that year. He’d go on to release another disc the following year, T.I. vs. T.I.P, an opus in the grand tradition of alter-ego-touting rappers. Just three months after T.I. vs. T.I.P. debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, T.I. was busted, four hours before his anticipated BET Hip-Hop Awards* appearance/performance for possession of three unregistered machine guns and possession of firearms by a convicted felon.
One month after his arrest, Ridley Scott’s American Gangster opened, with T.I. in a somewhat overhyped role that amounted to little more than a glorified cameo. (Your boy had 20 lines, tops.) Even with his limited screen time, T.I. seemed to possess that same hungry, young, brother-whose-life-is-one-wrong-turn-from-completely-derailing quality that Hollywood loves in its twenty-something Black actors (see: the entire black oeuvre of the 1990s). With the right management, business-savvy, and agent, dude probably could’ve reopened the glass divide between the mass of rappers-turned-actors who never had a chance of taking off in a non-niche market (read: DMX, 50 Cent, Nas, et al.) and the dudes who filmgoers under the age of 21 only know as actors, so consistent and prolific are their roles (read: Will Smith, Ice Cube).
Too bad about those multiple felonies. Now T.I. is just another cautionary tale, right?
Not so fast. If history is any indication, the last place you want to count T.I. down and out is in jail. When T.I. released his second disc, Trap Musik, in 2003, it was a small success, debuting at No. 4 on Billboard, gaining a little momentum with the catchy singles, “Be Easy” and “Rubberband Man.” Then he was sentenced to three years in jail for violating probation. It wasn’t until then that Trap Musik went platinum. Remarkably, he had the foresight to secure his own imprint, Grand Hustle Records, after signing with Atlantic (His first CD was with Arista). It meant more profit percentage points when the disc blew up.
He seems to be following the same pattern with this gun charge conviction. Last week Entertainment Weekly reported that T.I. had just signed a contract with MTV to film a reality show chronicling the 1,000 hours of community service he’s slated to complete before beginning his one-year jail sentence in Spring 2009. He’s also rushing out an album, Paper Trail (tentatively set for August 12 release).
If a reality show and a new album (surprise, surprise) were all, then T.I.’s career would have the faint stench of desperation about it. But again, not so fast. Though the artist did lose an endorsement deal with Chevrolet in light of his legal woes, T.I. doesn’t seem ready to relinquish his momentum. He’s launched a second Grand Hustle division, for one, a production company: Grand Hustle Films. And by the time he’s off to the clink, he’ll have the division’s first feature film in the can: Once Was Lost. He’s starring alongside Danny Glover.
He also inked a three-film deal with Screen Gems just last week.
Maybe Will Smith was onto something. T.I.’s only been on the scene for seven years. He’s already shared screen time with Denzel, received direction from Ridley Scott, started a production company that’s actually putting out what sounds like a decent film, released four CDs under his own imprint, and inked a three-film deal with a major studio—all this while circumnavigating penitentiary bids.
All of this begs the question: how is T.I. doing this? Hip-hop has reached a practically unshockable threshold. That is to say: we’ve seen it all. Cats opening fire on one another? Check. Beef so epic it cordons off two coasts of the country? Check. Dudes getting decade-long sentences for drug trafficking? Producers getting pinned on possession in Dubai, then walking? Check. Women rappers shooting other chicks in the stomach at the club? Been there, done that.
We’ve even seen a producer finish an inspired album on his deathbed.
50 Cent’s nine gunshot wounds are no longer a selling point. As an increasingly unimpressed audience, we figure multiple bullet scars or not, dude’s a lame lyricist.
So what is it about T.I. that’s gettin’ him over? Sheer charisma? Business savvy? The application of street game to boardroom politics? Boyish good looks? What? We refuse to believe it has anything to do with lyrics like, “When I chirp, shawty chirp back/Louis knapsack where I holdin’ all the work at.”
Are we wrong?
Is recording an album on house arrest still boosting brothers’ credibility these days?
* Do they really need a separate show for this?