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The tipping point: it's now or never for the King of the South. Releasing his sixth album, creating a new clothing line, signing a three-picture deal with Screen Gems and facing a year in prison, T.I. reflects on his life in flux.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

T.I. has what is known as "The Kanye Smile, a super-wide grin that bares most of his teeth. And though it's early on a muggy August morning, T.I. is ready with that megawatt beam, flashing what almost looks like a computer-generated twinkle at various producers, assistants and hosts of Fox Business Network's Money for Breakfast.

Mic'd and prepped to plug Respect My Vote!, a grassroots youth-voter-registration drive sponsored by the Hip Hop Caucus, the rapper, born Clifford Joseph Harris Jr., waits patiently. Sipping a cup of coffee, he looks to his right and peers over at another guest on the show. The man is holding a book. "How to be a business superhero," T.I. reads aloud. "I need to know that!"

The book's author, Sean Wise, glances at the rapper seated next to him. He takes in the diamond-studded watch, two heavy platinum chains and the dark-rinse jeans that puddle above T.I.'s Air Jordans. "Yeah," says Wise, handing over a business card. "It's a good time to be a venture capitalist."

"I just started up my own social-networking site," T.I. counters in his thick southern drawl.

"So what kind of traffic are you getting?" Wise asks.

T.I. leans back in his seat. "About a million unique visitors."

"What's the demographic?"

"Eighteen to thirty, mostly African-American," T.I. continues, describing the recently launched site StreetCred.com. "I just added a blog with audio and video components. Working on a mobile code right now. And we just got the vanity code for the term hip-hop."

Wise considers this, digs into his briefcase and pulls out another business card. "Here's my real card," he says, handing it over. "I'd love to set up a meeting with you."

T.I. flashes his smile again and replies: "Not a problem."

Spend a day with the 28-year-old rapper, actor, clothing designer and entrepreneur, and you will see this kind of exchange go down at least a dozen times. The self-proclaimed King of the South is fluent in the banter of venture capitalists, crack dealers, camp counselors and single mothers. As he leaves the TV network and makes his way to a black Chevy Suburban, he explains his diverse appeal.

"Even as a child I was in the 'hood, but I was different. I even looked different," he recalls. "It's because I was raised in different environments. From Bankhead [a neighborhood on Atlanta's west side] with my mama to 94th and Columbus in Manhattan with my daddy every summer."

T.I. has been drawn in different directions since childhood: from New York to Atlanta, from the streets to the classroom and from the independent hip-hop grind to the major-label industry. He's performed with Academy Award-winning actors on Hollywood soundstages while beefing with no-name rappers about his connection to the 'hood. For a decade he's been a spinning top, ricocheting into diverging paths, paving a turbulent road to manhood. Now, he's at his tipping point. "The Tipping Point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point," writes author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell in his 2000 bestseller, which he named after the term. Everything after the tipping point is radically altered. This is the peak upon which T.I. (or fittingly "Tip," as he's been called since his youth) stands today. Harris Jr. has tried swaying from hero to crook while trading in his charismatic Colgate grin to curry favor with the masses. But the volatility of his life's highs and lows is impossible to sustain. As triumphant as the artist's success is, his pitfalls have proven more costly.

In October 2007, T.I. was arrested on charges of possession of unregistered machine guns and possession of firearms by a convicted felon (stemming from a 1998 drug conviction). The case was set in motion when one of T.I.'s bodyguards was arrested after purchasing three machine guns and two silencers from an undercover agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The tapper subsequently agreed to cooperate with federal agents.

The whole seedy story-capped off with an inglorious arrest in a shopping-center parking lot in Atlanta just hours before his scheduled BET Hip Hop Awards performance-seemed lifted from a movie in which T.I. could very well have starred--be it Rashad, his character in ATL, or Stevie, drug lord Frank Lucas's nephew, whom he portrayed in American Gangster.

T.I.'s in-person charm and intelligence seem inconsistent with the wanton stockpiling of guns. But his public persona is only part of the picture. "In order for people to understand, they would have had to live my life," he explains as his SUV cruises along New York City's West Side Highway. "They would have to be in some of the situations that I've been blessed to make it through."

On May 3, 2006, after a party in Cincinnati, 26-year-old Phliant Johnson--T.I.'s close friend, personal assistant and employee of the rapper's record label, Grand Hustle--was killed in a gun battle, and three others were wounded. T.I. was with Johnson at the scene but was not injured.

The rapper was clearly affected by Johnson's death. Asked how he showed his despair, T.I. doesn't miss a beat. "Um, let's see," he says. "Well, I got paranoid and bought a lot of guns."

T.I. rolls his eyes and shakes his head in disbelief. "Let me try to explain," he says, rubbing his hands together. "Someone pulls up to your car, and pop, pop, popt." he says, mimicking the sound of a gun. "If you were without weapons at that time, you would probably want to be with weapons for every other time."

Shrugging his shoulders, he concludes, "In Cincinnati I had security. Two vans. All armed. I was not armed, doing things the absolute correct way. And look what happened. What do you do? Hence my poor decision making."

In his reaction to the attack, did he perhaps trust people he shouldn't have? T.I. dismisses the notion with a wave of his hand. "These were the same people I was trusting with my life," he says, his eyes wide, referring to his bodyguard's acquisition of firearms. "I'd rather find out they were not trustworthy in [that] situation than when we are both staring down the barrel of a gun."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In the ride from Manhattan to the Bronx, T.I. describes his first exposure to the drug game at age 12. He started dealing in his teens and was first arrested when he was 17. But despite the disreputable nature of his work, he did have a conscience. "We didn't provide to pregnant women or if you were with your children," he says. "Even when I was doing the wrong thing, I tried to do it the right way." T.I. doesn't hesitate when talking about his stint as a drug dealer. In fact, he is candid about most aspects of his life. On a few topics, however, he won't disclose squat.

On-trendsetting: He cheerfully recalls how in the eighth grade he wore a suit every Wednesday. "I just woke up one day and wanted to wear a suit," he explains. "Eventually all the guys in my class started wearing suits on Wednesdays."

On politics: He hesitates to endorse Barack Obama outright. "It's a conflict to encourage the masses to vote and then encourage people to vote for a certain person," he says. But he recognizes the appeal of Obama working from the Oval Office next year. "It could be a beautiful thing."

On beef: Ask him about altercations with tappers Shawty Lo and Lil' Flip and Ludacris's manager Chaka Zulu, and you'll find he's not one for dwelling. "I ain't wasting no more energy on that," he deflects firmly. "I have no problems with nobody. I'm just focused on my future."

On personal finance: T.I. is trying to curb his spending habits. "I don't have as much discipline as I'd like," he professes sheepishly. "I just bought two classic cars: a '72 Chevelle and a '79 Camaro. Spent thirty thousand on 'em."

On relationships: Don't bother asking. In fact, do not inquire about Tameka "Tiny" Cottle, a member of the R&B group Xscape, his longtime girlfriend and mother of two of his six children. In addition to his five biological kids, T.I. counts Cottle's daughter from a previous relationship as his own. In 2007 his family anticipated a new addition, but Cottle gave birth to a stillborn daughter.

T.I. is fiercely protective of Cottle's privacy, and when asked about the status of their on-and-off relationship, he stares out of the car window. "Where you think that plane is taking off from?" he muses, pointing toward the sky. When asked again, he smiles easily. "Everything in my life is going well." Eyebrow cocked, the rapper then sets his lips into a thin line. As his car pulls up to the Randall Avenue location of the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club in the Bronx, it is clear that the topic is closed.

Excitement ripples through the building as T.I. makes his way to the auditorium to deliver a speech. This appearance is part of the community service he performs nearly every day until his intended one-year jail sentence begins in March 2009. He must also observe an n PM curfew.

"I have to tell people all the time that he is not new to community service," says Curtis Benjamin, executive director of It's Cool To Be Smart, a national mentoring program based in Atlanta. "I met him years ago, and I told him how hard it was for me to get hip-hop artists to commit to working with young people. He said, 'Whatever you need, let me know.' And he's always been there."

I.I.'s sixth album, Paper Trail, culled from tracks recorded in his home studio while on house arrest, could be considered a departure for the baritone lyricist. The first single, "No Matter What," is a fiery response to those who counted him out after his troubles this past year. He has followed that track with the syrupy-sweet and blatantly girl-friendly "Whatever You Like," on which he sings more than raps. Street buzz surrounds "Swing Your Rag," a club track produced by and performed with Swizz Beatz. Paper Trail also boasts collaborations with Rihanna, Usher, Justin Timberlake and John Legend. This album could take T.I. to greater sales and recognition than any of his earlier creations for Atlantic Records, all of which have been certified platinum.

While on the road promoting Paper Trail, he is also in pre-production on the movie Bone Deep, featuring Matt Dillon, Idris Elba and Chris Brown. Serving as executive producer, he stars in the film as part of a three-picture deal with Screen Gems. T.I. also squeezes in planning meetings for his new clothing line, AKOO (A King of Oneself).

The schedule is brutal, and days are long.

"He works hard," says rapper Big Kuntry King, who is also signed to Atlantic Records through T.I.'s Grand Hustle Records imprint. "He's all about sacrificing a good time now for a good time later." This is the lesson he advocates in his speech at the Boys & Girls Club. Bounding to the stage with infectious enthusiasm, T.I. launches into the importance of education. He has the kids on their feet and ends his presentation by having them shout, "I can be better than T.I.!"

"There's something special about him," says Benjamin. "He has something that Tupae had. I tell him all the time that he can have that same kind of impact." T.I. is aware of his incandescent appeal and its effect on those who meet him. "Some people think I'm unapproachable," says the rapper on his way back to Manhattan. "People think I'm more arrogant than I am. I am arrogant when necessary. But I don't think I'm better than anybody." Then, stroking his chin while checking his reflection in the tinted car window, he jokes, "Better looking maybe."

Back in Manhattan a young goth guy with multiple facial piercings does a double take and approaches the star for a picture. T.I. readily agrees. "Wow. Thanks, man," says the boy clad in black. "No one will believe I met T.I.!" He snaps a shot of them together and begins to walk away, before stopping and swiveling around.

"You seem taller on television!" the fan shouts.

"You must have a big television!" T.I. counters.

The rapper shakes his head and smiles. "I'm pretty down-to-earth," he continues. "Probably a little too down-to-earth to be in my position. [It] may have hindered more than helped. If you put yourself on a pedestal, people treat you that way, but I walk the streets, slap hands." He gestures down the street to the young fan, still checking out his picture. "It can create a bond, or it could diminish the fantasy," T.I. reasons. "Either way, I gotta be me."

For more: giantmag.com/ti

photography kenneth cappello
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Author:King, Aliya S.
Publication:GIANT
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2008
Words:2181
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