As a newly freed T.I. effortlessly expands into new arenas – his first novel, Power and Beauty: A Love Story of Life on the Streets, debuts on October 18th, followed by a new VH1 reality series on December 5 – it is his first love that may need the most attention.
In 2010, T.I.'s seventh album, No Mercy, became the lowest-selling project of his career and the Atlanta star headed to prison, where he remained conspicuously absent from the music scene for nearly a year – despite appearing on hits like Drake's "Fancy" featuring Mary J. Blige and Swizz Beatz. Now, the MC (born Clifford Harris Jr.) must once again prove himself worthy of his self-proclaimed title: king.
"I've heard some east coast DJs have mediocre feeling toward 'I'm Flexin',' but that's expected, because the record's not for y'all," T.I. tells Rolling Stone about his first single, his voice rising a bit. "It's for my foundation, my people. I'll come back for y'all."
The "What You Know" rapper released the Big K.R.I.T.-produced track last month, along with a remix of Atlanta rapper Future's "Magic" and a verse on Young Jeezy's "F.A.M.E." Now T.I. is working on his own record, and he says he already has a few songs with longtime collaborator Pharrell Williams, which he describes as "some hip-hop rap shit. We're just going in for four minutes rapping."
As for the new album title, it’s still up in the air.
"The first of two album titles I'm debating is Kill the King, because in all that I've gone through I've observed how people respond to my circumstances, and I always wonder, 'Why y'all coming at me like this?' But I thought, 'How do you expect them to act?'" he explains. "Life is a game of chess, and the object is to kill the king. If you anoint yourself king, you have made yourself a target.
"The second one is self-explanatory – Trouble."
Keen on reclaiming his Southern hip-hop crown, T.I. has little patience for skeptics who believe his star has dimmed.
"If I never went to jail, did drugs, toted guns or made hot music, you never would have gave a fuck in the first place," he says bluntly. "Let's get back to making hot music and let that be the reason you fuck with me."
He adds: "No Mercy was my least-selling album since I'm Serious, but I sold 675,000 without me promoting it. That's more than some people sold who were on fire. As for No Mercy's material, much of that album was recorded after I knew I was going back to jail. Music comes from your spirit, and if your spirit is distraught, music will show it."
Now he's reviewing video treatments for "I’m Flexin'," and he says he may craft a mixtape with Grand Hustle MC B.o.B, who recently released a new single called "Strange Clouds." T.I. also plans to release remixes of Jay-Z and Kanye West's "Niggas In Paris" and Ke$ha's "Sleazy," which already includes a guest verse from the elusive Andre 3000. On the business front, the MC has added Hip Hop Since 1978, home to Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Drake, alongside longtime manager and Grand Hustle label partner Jason Geter.
As for the MC-slash-author's new novel, which follows two teens thrust into adulthood too soon, T.I. found his inspiration while reading a cult classic.
"I am a fan of [Sistah Souljah's] The Coldest Winter Ever and Midnight. I read them when I was locked up the first time," T.I. says. "It made me look for other books to entertain and stimulate my mind in the same way, and I couldn't find one, so I saw a void." Written with David Ritz, author of Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, T.I. says the sequel to Power and Beauty is already in the works.
The family man is also in the midst of filming a reality show starring his wife, Tameka "Tiny" Harris, and their children, called Family Hustle. "I'm showing the balance between the personal and the professional," T.I. says. "In my family, everyone has a hustle and most revolve around things that I already do, even down to my young son, who wants to rap, and my oldest daughter, Zonnique, who's in [teen group] OMG and on the Scream Tour right now." The series will chronicle the growth of OMG, which also counts Lil Wayne's daughter Reginae Carter as a member. Family Hustle premieres on VH1 on December 5th.