Think he’ll get to choose his own cellmate?
Things could’ve been a whole lot worse. After he got arrested late last year for trying to buy unlicensed machine guns and silencers, T.I. was looking at a long, long time in prison. After sitting home on house arrest for a few months, he finally entered a guilty plea yesterday, and the deal he struck looks to these unseasoned eyes like some kind of best-case scenario. The actual prison sentence is pretty short: a year and a day, and he could potentially serve as little as ten months with good behavior. Along with that comes 1500 hours of community service and the usual cocktail of house-arrest and probation that he’ll face once he finally gets done with his actual prison sentence. A year in prison is something I can’t personally imagine, but it’s all T.I. could’ve possibly hoped for. This guy’s been living under the shadow of possible incarceration for a long time. He was bragging about being a seven-time felon back when he made Trap Muzik, and I can still remember how quakingly pissed he was when Ashton Kutcher planted bullets on him on Punk’d that one day. Given how much T.I. had to lose, it was just unbelievably dumb on every level for him to buy those guns. There’s been speculation that dangerous people in Atlanta were pissed at him, but at worst that’s just a reason to invest in better security. Leaving all that alone, though, it looks like one of my favorite voices in rap will be able to maintain his career once he gets done with that prison term.
When I interviewed Killer Mike last month, he talked about how hard it is for rappers to do serious introspective music because their audience doesn’t want to hear it: “The world is ready to hear that music from Tip now because they’ve seen him suffer. So Tip is sitting there, and he’s thinking about that, and he’s going to give them some of that, I’m sure. But America’s a funny place; they have to see you suffer before they believe what you say.” T.I. vs. T.I.P. was T.I.’s attempt at self-interrogation as concept album. I wasn’t as down on it as some, but it really did come off flat and gimmicky for reasons that go beyond America just not being ready to hear it. I have some half-assed ideas about that. King had worked a whole lot better because it was a celebration of the total commercial dominance T.I. had carved out for himself. That’s the sort of thing you can comfortably talk about when you’re jetting around the world to do shows and popping up in movies with actual movie stars. But that’s a chaotic life, and it’s not as easy to dig into the complexities and vagaries of your own persona, while still trying to keep half an eye on a dwindling market, when you’re in the middle of all that. The whole idea that he was dividing himself into two separate personalities that didn’t ultimately seem too different from each other wasn’t helping everything. This might be total bullshit armchair psychology, but it seemed to me like T.I. was getting lost in his own hype on T.I. vs. T.I.P.
But since his arrest, T.I.’s spent about six months on house arrest, and he’s been working on a new album, Paper Chase. It must be a whole lot different sitting around your house in your bathrobe all day trying to write rather than balancing it out with all the day-to-day absurdities of superstar life. And he told MTV that for the first time since his first album, he’s been writing down his lyrics rather than freestyling them. The first new verse of his I’ve heard since the arrest is on the remix to Lupe Fiasco’s “Superstar,” and the difference between the two approaches is hugely evident. T.I. doesn’t say a whole lot on the “Superstar” remix; it’s just a blithely effortless swipe at fake friends. But it’s also an intricately constructed and impeccably delivered thing, the sort of work that comes from someone reconnecting with what he loves to do. The prospect of a whole album packed as tight as this verse makes me very, very happy. It’s not like T.I. has always been clumsy in his attempts at self-examination; Trap Muzik tracks like “Be Better Than Me” and “I Still Luv You” remain deeply moving. I can’t imagine what he’s capable of writing now. And, after all, it’s not like he’ll have a whole lot else to do for the next year or so.
Maybe it’s ridiculous to speculate about somebody’s future work when he’s facing something as huge as a year in prison. But I would’ve hated to see someone like T.I. ripped away from the world when he was so close to his peak. Thanks to what must be some very serious lawyers, that’s not happening. T.I.’s not done with us yet.