Since scoring two Number One hits in 2008, Atlanta hip-hop trailblazer T.I. has been best known for pop culture power moves: appearing on Robin Thicke's inescapable "Blurred Lines," launching the careers of Iggy Azalea and Travi$ Scott with his Grand Hustle imprint, appearing in Hollywood blockbusters like Ant-Man, and starring on five seasons of T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle. All of which has overshadowed the fact that he's still one of the most gifted MCs of a generation, a fountain of internal rhymes and infectious Southern swing.
Lest there be any confusion, his recently five-song EP, Da' Nic, is lean, 19-minute return to uncompromisingly hard beats, street narratives and tricky flows. It serves as an appetizer to his tenth album, The Dime Trap, which he told ComicBook.com was "a lot more urban, a lot more edgy, a lot more unapologetically ghetto than [2014's] Paperwork." Rolling Stone caught up with the rapper — oh yeah, call him "Tip" these days — to talk about working with Dr. Dre and swimming against rap's new melodic current.
In Check, Run It" you say "I'm already hot, I'm already rich." So why even make an album?
For my fans. For the fans that feel that the genre of music, or the style of music that we introduced to the world is not being properly served. If someone doesn't do it and do it properly on a grand scale, it will face a demise.
So you feel like you almost have a duty?
I mean, I won't necessarily say a duty. I just . . . I love it. I'm a UGK, 2pac fan. N.W.A, music that is of a certain culture. It basically paints the picture for the people in these circumstances who can't necessarily speak for themselves, and who can't tell the world what they go through or why they go through it. So this music is their voice.
Da' Nic, and what you've said about The Dime Trap, are supposed to hearken back to that classic style. Is there anything in particular that's making you say there is a void here that needs to be filled.
Yes, just that. I just feel like a lot of the music now, it's wonderful that music is changing and evolving. That's beautiful, that comes with growth. But, I find that young people — and even people from same generation or the same class that I'm from — they are feeling that if you do records like "Broadcast Live," that that sounds dated and old. And I'm like, 'No, no, that's classic.' Classics don't get old, that's why they call it classic. And I think that nobody is stepping out on that limb, because [of] fear of being considered old . . . Somebody old enough to know, but young enough to execute, has to do it.
How does it make you feel that the current sound of rap is very melodic — importance is placed the notes you use, the way you say things.
I recognize it. In most cases I appreciate it. Melody, cadence, vibe. Those are the frontrunners of the things people take into consideration when they listen to something and determine whether or not it's hot now. I get that. That's the new wave. There's nothing wrong with that. However, I myself, would not use a cadence or a melody if the lyrics did not make sense. I have not sacrificed my literary skill or my lyrical skills. I have not sacrificed and will not sacrifice that for cadence, melody and vibe. . . . I can't just say some bullshit and keep the cadence
You did a session with Dr. Dre for The Dime Trap . . .
Yep. A few of them.
How much of that is intended for the record?
Well, what was that experience like for you?
Dre's the homie, to be honest with you. I've never seen somebody so meticulous about music before. The only thing that I can say was a similar experience was when me and Eminem did those songs together. The way Em is about a verse, that's how Dre is about production. It's a very tedious, meticulous, nerve-wracking process. But the outcome is immeasurable. You just can't describe the difference in the magnitude of production that goes from what we're used to doing and what he's used to doing.
What can we expect for the rest of The Dime Trap?
You can expect Da' Nic but a little more articulate. A little more detail. Da' Nic is kind of like giving you your dessert first. It's gonna be a little more introspective. Different aspects of the lifestyle.
For someone like Travi$ Scott, do you give him advice?
You try. [Laughs.] Travis and Iggy, they got their own way.
As a label manager, is it hard to say, "I'm just gonna let them do their own thing."
I mean, man, it's difficult; but then I remind myself that what works for me is not gonna work for everybody. I can only teach people the way I was taught. If you want to learn from me, this is how you gon' learn. If you don't wanna learn this way, you wanna do it your own, fine. I'll sit back. You'll have to call me and tell me how I can be of use. Everybody has their own way. And they have been very successful. I think there's some things that could have been avoided had we applied just a little different strategy.
Grand Hustle is having these amazing successes with people like B.o.B. and Iggy who are in a more melodic vein, but you are always putting on artists like Eightball & MJG and Killer Mike. Is it frustrating that those type of records don’t take off in the same way?
Yeah, but . . . that's the game! But Killer Mike has an illustrious career right now.
Just a different lane.
Yeah. Eightball, they're in the legendary lane of Southern hip-hop and I don't think you can ever move them out of the legendary conversation.
Would you personally ever consider working a lane outside of major rap media? I saw Killer Mike attempt a show in Austin on a skate ramp to a bunch of punk rock kids.
I think that idea came from the music. He made the kind of music that was conducive to being performed at a skate ramp. And that is what we must do, because our music speaks to people given their lifestyle and the things they go through and their environment. So, once we hear the music — it will tell us what the proper platform is.