The leap from a prison cell to family-based VH1 reality show may not be the most conventional path for a rapper vying for a return to musical relevance. But for T.I. (a.k.a. Clifford Harris Jr.), it marks a crucial step in regaining his stature for the release of "Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head," T.I.'s first album since being released from prison in August 2011.
T.I. ruled the charts for much of the past decade, but the cocky Southerner derailed a blockbuster career by ending up in prison — twice — over two years.
In 2009 the Atlanta-based artist served nearly seven months after he tried to buy unregistered guns and silencers from undercover federal agents. He was arrested again in September 2010 in Los Angeles after authorities said he was found with Ecstasy pills. He wound up in an Arkansas prison for nearly a year.
In between the incarcerations, T.I. recorded "No Mercy," which turned out to be a critical and commercial disappointment. "I was walking into prison [again]," he said of the circumstances surrounding the album. "So if it ain't your favorite album, guess what, it wasn't my favorite time. So we're even." He also lost several lucrative endorsement deals, including one with luxury liquor firm Remy Martin.
Now the 32-year-old is attempting to regain the ground he lost with, among other things, the reality series "T.I. and Tiny: The Family Hustle." It also stars his wife Tameka "Tiny" Cottle, and finds the father of six attempting to recast himself as a family man.
"One of the best things that's happened to T.I. is the VH1 show," said Jermaine Hall, editor in chief of Vibe magazine. "It's shown him as a very responsible father and a very loving husband. Yeah he went down not once, but twice, for some very bad decisions, but there's an absolute other side to him."
Those other sides include author (he's published two novels since 2011), actor (a career path that started with "ATL" and "Takers") and introspective lyricist.
T.I. worked overtime writing songs for his new album, recording 127 tracks over the past year. The tunes chosen for "Trouble Man" couple his unapologetic snarl with a self-awareness not heard often from the rapper. "Kickin it with your sons. Trippin. Never realize. How good you got it, been so rapped up in your losses" he raps in "Life Is Beautiful." He even interprets Leonard Cohen in his own loose version of "Hallelujah."
The new approach may be working: T.I's album (released Dec. 18) hit No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 last week, making it his eighth album to crack the Top 10.
Yesi Ortiz, a Power 106 disc jockey who hosts a midday radio program on KPWR-FM (105.9), said T.I. is in back to form with this record. "The public was disappointed the first time around when they were all expecting a comeback from him," Ortiz said. "Fans want to hear a better T.I. than what they did before. And I think he knows that as well."
On album as in conversation, T.I. isn't defensive or particularly remorseful about the non-glamorous parts of his past, but he is uncharacteristically transparent. "What people don't realize is no matter how much I [mess] up, nobody else out there is going to be harder on me than I am on myself," he said, his otherwise neutral expression turning hard.
"Considering myself exceptionally intelligent, to do such dumb [stuff] is like come on, dude! I pride myself on my intellect," he said. "For something that's a contradiction of that to happen, more than once, it's kinda like … am I stupid?"
But the album cover is an illustration of him holding what looks to be a gun, and in one skit on the album he reenacts (or perhaps imagines) an exchange in 2007 that led to him being busted on weapons charges. Lyrics such as "You'll find the weapons they took away, I replaced," might make a listener believe the rapper has emerged unrepentant.
It's a far cry from the T.I. who starred in the 2009 MTV docu-drama "Road to Redemption" — a cautionary series tailored for at-risk youth. It focused on the days leading up to his first prison stint. Little did he know there'd be a second.
T.I. doesn't flinch when asked about the contradiction in his public personas. "After 'Road to Redemption' and the 1,000 hours of community service, I had made some real progress in my life and who I am as a man," he said. "[It] brought me to a better place mentally and emotionally. But I can't go from doing the wrong thing every day to now I'm the example of doing the right thing. I spent 15 years breaking the law — everything from selling drugs, doing drugs to shooting pistols, whatever it is."
Though his comeback in music is still uncertain, T.I. has already earned back some of his stock that plummeted in the past two years via the VH1 series (it just concluded a second season) and the latest book in his fictional series for Harper Collins. "Trouble & Triumph: A novel of Power & Beauty," which was published in September, is a street-wise tale of two friends.
T.I. is also returning to film. His first comedy, "Identity Thief," alongside Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, is slated for February and he's plotting more movie roles.
When asked to reflect back on his troubles, especially his last incarceration, T.I. is almost philosophical about the experience.
"I was a lot more, how can I say, hazardous. After I came back, it was [like] 'I've already been to prison, let's live a little,'" he said, leaning back in his seat. "That's not an excuse, just an explanation. [It] was incredibly stupid, I acknowledge that. It was meant for me to go through this to see something. And I saw it. I hate that I've had to go through it to see it, but I made it."
T.I. is now planning a tour, and already has material for a sequel to his current album. The title of his new conquest leaves no doubt about his aspirations for the future: "Trouble Man: He Who Wears the Crown."