T.I. is 40 today. It seems like the Atlanta MC had already entered the 40 club with peers like Pusha T, Cam’ron, and Kanye West — a testament to his rap longevity. He released his debut I’m Serious album in October 2001, and has been hopping in the booth and fulfilling that mantra ever since, becoming one of the game’s most respected rappers.
But he’s not as respected as he’d like to be. Earlier this year, during a conversation on Big Boy’s Neighborhood, he surmised “I don’t think y’all really remember what I’ve done.” Some of that forgetfulness can be chalked up to the passage of time — and his propensity to earn the ire of Black women — but he’s right.
He played a major part in the history of trap music and transcended regional confines while still repping Atlanta. There are certain lyricists from below the Mason-Dixon line who you can’t tell are from the South; T.I. isn’t one of them. He helped draw listeners to his home, not the other way around. His presence is a microcosm of the trap sound he’s claimed to invent: the subgenre is worldwide, but it’s rooted in Atlanta. Those who appreciate hip-hop’s post-regionalism should show some gratitude to T.I. for his part in the evolution. Andre 3000 let us know “the Souf’ got sum’ to say,” and T.I. followed up on Outkast’s superstardom by talking to everybody. 20 years later, Atlanta’s trap sound is ubiquitous, and T.I. is a part of that evolution.
The so-called “third coast” has long been subject to reductive criticism from people opining that the South is less sophisticated or intellectual than other regions. In 2010, New Orleans rapper Jay Electronica called out RZA for such comments that The Abbot had made in Rap Pages. While it’s unclear what RZA said back then, he acknowledged the comments and “clarified” to Sway:
“I was speaking on the education level in the South, how brothers drop out in the sixth grade – some of them because they have to go to work, some of them because of the poverty, some because they’re not interested in the education system, how their dialect in speaking and how their vocabulary was limited.
He also noted that the North had “evolved” their dialect.“ But Mobb Deep’s “dunn language” is indiscernible on purpose. The Wu’s heavily-coded lingo reflected their 5-percenter teachings. Why are those New York dialects, that thumbed their nose at institutional standards, celebrated, while Southern dialect somehow reflects a lack of education to critics? It reflects writer Briana Younger’s observation, written in NPR’s stellar celebration of Southern hip-hop, that “it’s rarely considered that Southern rap sounds the way it does as an aesthetic decision rather than due to inability.”
RZA’s comments reflect a eurocentric praxis that dogged Southern rappers for years. Those who make jokes about T.I.’s vast vocabulary and colorful cadence should consider that they’re a pushback against elitist, classist beliefs about the South. The thing is, he never had to switch up his cadence or vernacular to be understood.
Videographer Choke No Joke’s “Last Days Of The Roc” series captured footage of Dipset and T.I. in 2003. T.I. is talking with a deep Atlanta accent, but Jim Jones not only understood what he was saying while interacting with him on the finer points of car rims, he gave the camera a primer on “the trap” — a sign that he had been listening intently to I’m Serious and Trap Muzik, which had come out in August 2003.
There’s a lot to be said about the war on drugs’ plunder on Black America (an entirely different piece), but the music bore from the drug game is one of our community’s unlikeliest connecters. As one of T.I.’s favorites Jay-Z once noted, “We all ghetto B.” Listening to Trap Muzik expresses an all-too-relatable narrative of survival mode that transcends regional lines. Baltimore had the corners, LA had the dope spots, New York had the building lobbies, and Atlanta had “the trap.” They’re all different locations, but they’re the same place — all within the same struggle. So when T.I. rapped about just “Doin’ My Job” over a shimmering Kanye West beat, his sentiment was universally felt.
The success of Trap Muzik paved the way for a steady commercial ascendance. With a slew of ‘00s hits like “Rubber Band Man,” “U Don’t Know Me,” “ASAP,” and “What U Know,” T.I. helped entrenched trap music as a bankable sound, and the industry took notice. He helped shift the sound of popular music to our current juncture with skittering hi-hats and 808s as core aesthetics of popular music. Gucci Mane and Jeezy shifted the trap sound in a different sonic direction with the help of producers like Zaytoven and Shawty Redd, but T.I.’s catalog is undeniably a part of the trap music fabric. It’s even more impressive that he never relegated himself to that sound.
Consider the first two songs on his King album. He’s showing off his technical prowess over a sinister Just Blaze instrumental on the intro. And only after he showed off his lyrical ability did he invite everyone down south on the UGK-featuring “Front Back,” noting “I know a lot of y’all n****s out there, who ain’t up on this down south sh*t probably wonderin’ what the f*ck you listenin’ to right now.” There are very few rappers who can credibly pull that off, and it speaks to his popularity that he knew he had listeners all over the country.
He’s a top-flight MC over any beat, sounding like he’s home in more ways than one. He could have fun over Swizz Beatz’ zany “Bring Em Out,” and mow through “Swagga Like Us’’” surging percussion. He could also get reflective like he did on Kanye West’s “Drive Slow” remix, which is one of his finest moments. But no matter what kind of beat he was on, he never sacrificed his voice. He’s held his own with Jay-Z, Beanie Sigel, Dipset, Meek Mill, Snoop Dogg, and many other non-Southerners, and always sounded like Atlanta.
T.I.’s catalog helps prove a point that shouldn’t have to be broached: that Southern artists can rap over anything. T.I. had to overcome the North’s elitist stigmas when he first got in the game. Now, those same gripers claim that everyone sounds like Atlanta. His commercial stature may have faded over the years, and he may be more known to the younger generation for controversial comments and parenting decisions, but many things can be true at once. No one can deny his musical legacy or his complicity in changing the tides of rap music.