“I’m big time, nigga,” declares T.I. on “On Doe, On Phil,” a track off of his latest album, Paperwork, and rightfully so. Over the course of the last thirteen years, nine studio albums, ten mixtapes and countless guest appearances, the rapper, born Clifford Harris has managed to outshine and outlast many of his counterparts. He’s risen to the occasion time and time again, due to his undeniable talent, commanding presence, consistency and ability to overcome adversity. The self-proclaimed, King of the South ruled the rap charts and has gone on to explore and conquer new territories outside of music. He’s now well-respected for his endeavors in both film and television. “I just intend on keeping my foot on motherfuckers’ necks,” he says jokingly. “Because when I was down they tried to keep their foot on mine.”
It’s been more than a decade since T.I. first landed on the scene with his Neptunes-produced single, “I’m Serious,” and he and the Neptunes frontman, Pharrell Williams are still connecting on music. Sk8board P, who now happens to be one of pop culture’s most ubiquitous and influential figures, signed on to executive produce Tip’s Paperwork. Together, along with a supporting cast of very talented artists and producers, which includes the Usher, Young Thug, Iggy Azalea, Jeezy, The-Dream, DJ Toomp, Tricky Stewart and, DJ Mustard, the tandem presented one of T.I.’s strongest and most well-rounded outputs in recent years. “The goal here is to get back on top and make niggas feel it,” adds the multitalented entertainer.
In celebration of the release of Paperwork, T.I. and New York’s Hot 97 threw a private listening session for a select group of industry folks and fans. Before participating in the festivities of the night, Tip spoke with Life + Times about not only Paperwork, but also his plans to release a gangster version of Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, the cartoon he’s been working on with Kelsey Grammer titled Lil Homies and the phone call that squashed Snoop Dogg’s beef with Iggy Azalea.
Life+Times: At one point, Paperwork was going to be released as several EPs. Why did you decide to scrap that idea and instead go with a more traditional release plan?
TI: It’s still three separate projects. At first, what it was was three separate sections of an album. I’d compare it to a play. It would’ve been like taking an album and having the first act, which is Paperwork, the second act, which is The Return and the third act, which is Love & Liability, and having them all have different themes. It’s just that the music grew. Each of these columns became strong enough to stand on their own. The first is Paperwork and it is conceptually a timeless tale of the making of a young G. You know what I’m saying? It’s the things that must be done in order for him to be the person that he is today.
L+T: It’s like the journey of that young G?
TI: It’s the journey of, but it’s also bigger than him. It’s like a motherfucker was almost born into it. It’s certain applications of skill and certain manifestations that must take place for it to really come into fruition, but the tools or the foundation was already put out there by his daddy, his granddaddy, his uncles, his momma, etc. It was ordained. That’s the theme of Paperwork. The second one is called The Return and it’s going to be the closest thing to Trap Muzik I think people have seen. It’s going to be unapologetic, straight up gangster shit. The third one, Love & Liability is the story of a young man, who is a solid cat, but his heart finds him in relationships with people who he probably shouldn’t be in relationships with, because of the people they’re in relationships with. It’s a gangster version of 808s & Heartbreak. So those are the three sections. Paperwork is just the first.
L+T: You’ve worked with Pharrell Williams all throughout your career. How was this experience different from the work you two have done in the past?
TI: The conversations were different. I think we both could tell that the other was a lot more invested this go around. He wanted me to know that he wanted to put his best effort forward and I wanted him to know the same, so we were very passionate in our views. We had days worth of hour-long conversations, no bullshit. I promise to God that every song on that album came with at least two hours of commentary afterwards. We had different approaches to music, like for the “Oh Yeah” record. Pharrell wanted that to be a spiritually uplifting kind of record, but it sounded like warrior music to me. He and Pusha T had a show in Miami, so he gave me the beat and left. I was like, “Hell yeah. He done left me alone with this motherfucker. It’s Mine!” [laughs]. So when he came back he was like, “Tip, I’m so divided in my feelings right now.” There was probably an hour-long conversation after that with us just figuring out whether to just smash the gas on these niggas with the finger-in-your-face, fuck you kind of style or to go with the rise above and float away style. I was like, “That ain’t my background, Pharrell. I respect you for doing it. But for me? I have a different approach.” We went back and forth so much about that and we were both right. We both had valid points. And we both walked away with a mutual respect and agreeing to agree and disagree at the same time. You know what I’m saying? The music came out phenomenal because of it. We probably should’ve recorded the recording process behind this album.
L+T: Paperwork is your ninth solo album, but also your first album since leaving longtime home Atlantic Records. Did you feel a different kind of pressure to deliver with this album?
TI: I always put the same amount of pressure on myself to deliver with every project. That even goes for my mixtapes, films and fashion. I’m very ambitious. I have high expectations and I can’t accept mediocrity. I can’t do it. Even at times when mediocrity reared its ugly face in my presence I denounced it like, “Fuck this. This ain’t me.” That’s just how I roll. That’s why I work so hard with everything I do. It’s not by accident.
L+T: What’s your favorite song off of Paperwork?
TI: I don’t have a favorite song. Think about your favorite book. Do you think you’d be able to pick your favorite page out of it?
L+T: Definitely, not.
TI: Exactly. That’s kind of how I feel about the album. It’s like a book, man. I couldn’t pick a favorite page. That was my intention for the album.
L+T: You’ve helped to introduce the world to the likes of Iggy Azalea, B.O.B., Travi$ Scott, Young Dro and Watch The Duck. Do you ever feel that you aren’t as credited as you should be when it comes to your knack for finding and developing new talent?
TI: I don’t need no credit. I don’t need that. As long as the people that I’ve worked with value the time that I’ve put into their careers, I’m fine. That’s all I care about. I’m focused on the future. Other cats can have a lot of loud talk with very little to show. I’d rather work very quietly and modestly, yet have the most to show. I ain’t really tripping man. I’m good. I had equity in my efforts. That’s what matters the most to me. I have motherfuckers who hold me in really, really high regards, because I had a significant contribution to their careers. That’s what matters most to me. Don’t nobody say I owe them. If they know that I’ve contributed to their careers and they appreciate it, that’s what matters to me. …I can hold my head high in any ghetto in America and be okay. I value that. I’m a real nigga and didn’t comprise being a real nigga. To me, that’s what matters.
L+T: What are your thoughts on Atlanta’s current rap scene?
TI: I appreciate it, because I can remember being in the position of some of those cats. I was young and looking to somehow gain acceptance, but knew that I didn’t fit in. I remember that, so I ain’t going to be the nigga to just cast a shun on a young nigga, unless you do some fuck shit. If you a fake nigga – whether you’re old or young, baby, man or woman – then I have to treat you like you’re fake. For the ones that got it together, even if I don’t like their music I can still observe their progress and I can respect their hustle. Even if I can’t bump that shit in my ride I can still say, “You know what? That new nigga came a long way. He did well.”
L+T: Some people have said a lot of what’s currently happening in Atlanta is a little too different.
TI: It’s supposed to be different. I think that the sound has become so broad. You got a nigga like Young Thug, who is as hood as he can be, yet is as broad also. That’s really the first nigga since Andre 3000 that was really willing to go there with it. He’s like, “Fuck what niggas say. I know who I am. I know what I’ll do.” That to me, along with the maintaining of the skills and the core principles of what we call hip hop matters. Sometimes motherfuckers get caught up in not understanding what he says, but we didn’t understand everything Bone Thugs-N-Harmony said. We didn’t know everything Busta Rhymes or Twista said. We ain’t know everything James Brown said, but if the shit was dope then it was dope. Migos ushered in a whole other cadence, which was crazy. That was kind of – I don’t want to minimize their efforts, but on some Das EFX type shit like when they came in with that cadence and bum stiggedy bum stiggedy bum. Everybody wanted to flow like that. They ushered in a new style and that’s what the Migos have done, regardless of what you think about them. And they have hits. After “Versace” people were like, “What else are they going to do?” Now they got “Fight Night” and “Handsome and Wealthy.” I think Rich Homie Quan has shown some substantial viability as well. The record with him and Problem was a problem. I think people like Thug, Rich Homie Quan and Migos are doing their thing, and there are a lot of other cats that are showing promise in Atlanta. I think the future of Atlanta has prosperity.
L+T: You’re developing a cartoon that you’ve compared to the timeless classic, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Could you tell us about it?
TI: It’s called Lil Homies and it’s basically about me and my partners growing up in the hood and seeing very, very adult things through our young eyes. When we were walking home from school and we saw the dude on the corner at the same time everyday dancing and cracking jokes, we’d just laugh. We didn’t know he was high out his mind. We didn’t know that the dude that pulled up in a brand new car everyday stole cars for a living. It’s something that me and Kelsey Grammer are joining forces for. We have one of the writers from Boondocks working in the script for us. But it’s something that we’re going to take our time with.
L+T: You’ve helped to orchestrate the end of feuds between Rick Ross and Jeezy and more recently Snoop Dogg and Iggy Azalea. You’re an expert mediator.
TI: [Laughs] All of these situations be convos, man. There have been a lot of times where I’ve interceded, but it didn’t go right and it didn’t get spoken on, because it was just a conversation. To be honest, me and Snoop have our own relationship. I love, honor and respect dude. I’ve looked up to him and tipped my hat to him. When he and Iggy’s situation was going down I just sat back at first to see if it would go away on its own. Then it started to spread, so I called him on my own just as a homie. He was just like, “You already know what’s up with us. We’re good, man on a whole lot of levels. That shit went too far. It’s over.” I never suggested he make the video apology. People took it that way just because of how passionate Snoop was about fixing it, but that was based off of a mutual respect, not no intimidation or no fuck shit. I wouldn’t even be the real nigga that I am to let motherfuckers go on even thinking that. I would never go at the OG like that. Never. I have too much respect for him. He paved the way. Outside of our personal relationship, he paved the way for me to be able to do what I do. He was the first young nigga kicking it the way he was kicking for my generation. The Dr. Dres and the Run DMCs were much older than me. With Snoop it was like, “Damn, that nigga only a few years older than me.”