Though he hasn’t yet reached the level of longterm dominance promised by his early moniker, “Jay-Z of the South,” T.I. has nevertheless become one of Atlanta hip-hop’s most successful exports. He has a raspy, twangy flow and a persona that is equally suited to for-the-ladies crooning, a la Justin Timberlake’s “My Love,” as it is to trunk-rattling trap-rapping, a la “What You Know.”

Clifford Harris was born and raised in the Bankhead section of Atlanta, where he became involved in the drug trade as a teenager. He was nicknamed “Tip” after his grandfather, but after signing with Arista records in 2001, he shortened his name to T.I. in deference to fellow Arista artist, Q-Tip. T.I.’s debt on Arista, I’m Serious, was full of breathless drug-rapping and bouncing, crunk-styled production, but it failed to make much of a dent commercially.


After being dropped from Arista, he built up an underground following through the release of mixtapes with DJ Drama, and in 2003 he released Trap Muzik through his own Atlantic-affiliated label, Grand Hustle. Buoyed by the hit singles “24s” and “Rubberband Man,” Trap Muzik easily outsold its predecessor and established T.I. as one of the leaders of a burgeoning Atlanta rap movement along with Young Jeezy and Lil Jon. The 2004 follow-up, Urband Legend, cracked the top 10; that same year he collaborated with Lil Wayne and Destiny’s Child on “Soldier.”

T.I.’s fourth album, King, was released in 2006 to a flurry of publicity. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, and the single “What You Know” became the biggest rap song of the year. King captured T.I.’s Southern-paced swagger in all its glory. The rapping was rhythmic, lyrically dense, and engaging; the beats were a diverse load of booming synths and left-field samples. T.I. stumbled a little with the follow-up, the half-baked concept album T.I. vs T.I.P., but returned to form on 2008’s Paper Trail, which produced the hits “Whatever You Like,” “Live Your Life,” “Dead and Gone,” and the hip-hop summit classic “Swagga Like Us,” which featured Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne convening over a M.I.A. sample.

Legal issues clouded over this success, though. In 2007 T.I. was arrested on federal gun charges, and he started serving a year-long sentence for the crime in March 2009. T.I. vowed to return strong, though, and in the same month as his release from prison in March 2010, he came out with the blistering “I’m Back.” He is expected to release his seventh studio album, King Uncaged, later in 2010. ~Wilson McBee

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