If T.I. sounds more reflective than usual on his new album, Paper Trail, there's a good reason. The Atlanta MC wrote and recorded tracks for the disc at home while on house arrest in the past year, awaiting trial for possession of three machine guns — charges that could have resulted in a decades-long prison sentence. "It felt like the world was against me," he says of the time he spent working on his sixth full-length, the follow-up to his 2007 CD, T.I. vs. T.I.P. "It felt like people would rather ridicule, judge and condemn me than support me."
Few of the new songs describe the violent, drug-dealing lifestyle documented on hits like "What You Know" and "Rubberband Man." Instead, the new record highlights the fear, anger and guilt T.I. was feeling as he awaited trial. "I didn't know how everything would come out, but I had faith that God had a plan and it would supersede my distorted judgment," says the rapper, who claims he acquired the arsenal because he feared for his life after his assistant was murdered in 2006. The judge sentenced T.I. to 1,000 hours of community service and a year in prison, to begin in 2009. "A lot of things that I was doing needed to change, and this was the time for me to do that," he says. "I'm a better person."
"No Matter What," which leaked in April, sets the tone. Backed by gospel organs and blues guitar, T.I. offers a survivor's testimony: "I ain't dead, I ain't done/I ain't scared, I ain't run/Still I stand." On the bass-heavy club track "What's Up, What's Happening" and on "Collect Call," the MC takes aim at friends who abandoned him during his ordeal. "People were really hatin' on me," he says. "My message is that the hatin' won't do nothin' but make me go harder and get better."
But it's not all heavy. The futuristic "Let My Beat Pound," produced by J.R. Rotem, is engineered for car stereos. "My trunk sounds like a midget trying to get up out of there," T.I. drawls. And on "I'm Illin," the MC shows off his virtuosic flow with quick-fire rhymes about being "the hottest nigga since Tupac."
This summer, T.I. is hitting the road, mixing promotional appearances with speaking engagements at schools and youth centers for his community service, and mentally preparing for prison. "It's a bitter pill to swallow," he says. "But I've got a lot of water."