T.I. Won’t Let Jail Stop Him From Making Music

Before his prison sentence starts next year, T.I. wants to knock down his image as a rapper who glorifies the street life. Perhaps nowhere is that illustrated better than on his new album “Paper Trail,” which comes out on Tuesday. Fans won’t find any boasts about his days as a hustler or portrayals of himself as a dangerous gangster. Instead, the 28-year-old father of five offers songs about taking responsibility for his mistakes and learning from his criminal past. And tracks that do mention crime do so in a cautionary tone.

“To specifically talk about guns and drugs in that fashion, I won’t be able to do that because it’s not a part of my life anymore,” says the best-selling rapper, who is known for hits such as “Rubberband Man” and “U Don’t Know Me.”

The melancholy “Dead and Gone” featuring Justin Timberlake may be the album’s best example of that, as T.I. makes it clear that he is ready to start a new and positive chapter in his life.

“It’s about leaving behind certain ways that aren’t conducive to progression,” said T.I., whose real name is Clifford Harris. “It’s also in relation to certain friends that aren’t here right now.”

T.I., rap’s self-proclaimed “King of the South,” was sentenced to one year in prison on federal weapons charges after he was arrested last October before the BET Hip-Hop Awards in Atlanta for allegedly trying to buy automatic weapons. T.I., who has a prior drug conviction and spent time behind bars for a probation violation a few years ago, is scheduled to start his prison sentence in March 2009 after completing 1,000 of community service. He has spent the last several months speaking to kids and churches, warning about the pitfalls of living a hustler’s life.

“Paper Trail” is the follow-up to last year’s platinum-selling CD “T.I. vs T.I.P.” While that CD was a commercial success it wasn’t a critical one, as some labeled it as one of his weakest projects. The album was released during a particularly challenging time in T.I.’s life, as he mourned the death of his daughter shortly after his girlfriend gave birth, and the recent shooting death of a close friend.

‘He took it to another level’
Much of “Paper Trail” was recorded while T.I. was on house arrest last winter. For the first time since his 2001 CD “I’m Serious,” T.I. wrote songs on paper instead of memorizing his verses. He wanted to make sure he carefully expressed his thoughts about past mistakes while being involved in the street life.

“He’ll normally just go into the booth and rap off the top of his head, very brilliant,” says DJ Toomp, a longtime producer of T.I. who reunited with the rapper on “Paper Trail.”

“He took it to another level by writing songs. I was skeptical at first because I didn’t know what to expect. But when I actually saw him do it, then I was convinced.”

Other producers on the CD include Kanye West, Nate “Danja” Hills and Just Blaze, while Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Usher and Rihanna are among the collaborators. The album has already notched No. 1 hit with the female-friendly song “Whatever You Like,” which features the rapper singing sweet nothings to a lover instead of spitting out tough raps.

It’s yet another example of T.I. sustained mainstream appeal, despite his arrest. The Grammy-winner was a headliner at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, made a cameo appearance on the new season HBO’s “Entourage” and is currently filming for his upcoming movie “Bone Deep.”

But that doesn’t mean that T.I. has lost his intensity. His cocky swagger is evident on “What’s Up, What’s Haapnin’,” a diss song aimed toward fellow Atlanta rapper Shawty Lo, who charged that T.I. was pretending to be from one of the Atlanta’s most violent housing projects. In response to Lo’s claims, T.I. filmed a video there.

“There are people who want him to be defeated,” said fellow rapper and friend Yung Joc said. “There are a lot of people who love for his downfall. But when he comes back strong, it hurts them ... at the end of the day, the guy can’t be denied.

“Tip is known by many as one of those guys who overcome his obstacles,” he added. “He’s a grinder.”