In this week’s episode of Fresh Pair, Atlanta trap rap godfather T.I. sits down with Just Blaze and Katty Customs to recount his start and subsequent two decades in the rap business, share his top rap albums from the Georgia capital, and the trap museum that he founded to highlight the culture and history behind the genre he helped start so long ago.
Tip got his start — at least, as far as mainstream exposure goes — in 2000 when he signed to Arista Records and released his debut album I’m Serious a year later. But it wasn’t until 2003 that his popularity exploded after signing a joint venture deal with Atlantic Records for his own imprint Grand Hustle Records and putting out Trap Muzik, the album that gave the burgeoning Atlanta subgenre an official title and set the stage for nine more albums and a slew of platinum and gold hits throughout the next decade and a half. The same rules apply as last week’s list for The Game; here are T.I.’s ten best songs, ranked.
10. “Dead And Gone” Feat. Justin Timberlake
2008’s Paper Trail was probably Tip’s most obvious swing for mainstream hits, and “cross-cultural” appeal — understandably, considering he was facing a good 20 years on federal weapons charges. This was an open-handed petition for empathy, explaining his circumstances in plain terms and almost — but not quite — apologizing for his past actions. You can take a lot of points away for that but the savvy in recruiting Justin Timberlake at the height of his powers (before the backlash over cultural appropriation to come) is undeniable. “Dead And Gone” is also far less annoying in hindsight than “Live Your Life” or “Swagga Like Us,” even if it was never as big of a hit (it peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100).
9. “Why You Wanna”
Bald-faced bids for cross-gender appeal are always a little iffy in my book — y’know, the songs on the album “for the ladies” — but T.I. manages to make it work well, after taking a few cracks at it on pre-King projects. By 2006, though, he’d settled into his role and distanced himself just enough from the tough-guy image he’d cultivated on Trap Muzik that he was able to pull it off. It probably helps that the track interpolates a couple of the coolest songs from the previous decade, “Gypsy Woman” by Crystal Waters (Black people invented house, and don’t you forget it) and “Find A Way” from A Tribe Called Quest.
8. “About the Money” Feat. Young Thug
The most recent song on this admittedly nostalgic list, this one is here mainly for being one of the first songs to introduce the rap world to the then-emerging Young Thug. Certainly, T.I. was the first major artist to see the potential in the skinny trapper with the slurred flow and co-sign what was to many a little too left-field. T.I. can take the last laugh now if he wants it, but considering Thugger’s current situation, maybe he’ll have to wait until that case is resolved. Still, T.I.’s ear for talent (however volatile) is undeniable (he also signed B.O.B., Killer Mike, and Travis Scott to Grand Hustle, which is an insane hit record to contemplate).
T.I.’s first single under Atlantic, the lead single from Trap Muzik introduced the world to the chemical reaction that is the connection between T.I. and DJ Toomp. Here was a Southern artist who kind of rapped like a country-ass Big L, flying in the face of New Yorkers’ preconceived notions of Dirty South rap with still maintaining an edge (and a drawl) that rooted him stalwartly in that infamous red clay. What a way to kick off your career (again).
6. “Bring ‘Em Out” Feat. Swizz Beatz
Ugh. I nearly chucked this one out of spite; its beat is (like most Swizz Beatz productions) way too busy and it’s still kind of a headache to get through — but maybe that’s because it’s the sort of song that everyone knows because everyone plays it so damn much. There’s something to be said about a song you hate but can’t help but hum along to. It was also T.I.’s first top-ten, so there’s that.
5. “Rubberband Man”
While “24’s” was the song that introduced T.I. to the larger rap audience outside of the Peach State, it was “Rubberband Man” that solidified the attention he’d been receiving, giving him his first appearance in the Top 40 and teeing up his entry into the US Rap chart’s top ten with its follow-up, “Let’s Get Away.” More often than not, the second hit is actually the one that defines an artist; “Rubberband Man” presented a hitmaker without equal.
4. “Top Back”
On King, T.I. took a straight-up victory lap after the success of Urban Legend, and “Top Back” is emblematic of the triumphant vibe. Toning back the gangster aesthetic for big flexes and a hypnotic flow, “Top Back” presented T.I. at his most confident, backed by a perfectly regal beat from Mannie Fresh, with whom he’s always had the best chemistry, his rock-solid partnership with DJ Toomp notwithstanding.
3. “Stand Up” Feat. Trick Daddy, Lil Wayne, and Lil Jon
Although it was never released as a single in its own right, “Stand Up” is undoubtedly one of T.I.’s absolute best songs. On it, he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with two of the South’s longest-running rap mainstays, including a Lil Wayne who was just beginning an absolutely devastating run that would last through the remainder of the decade. You may notice that this list is kind of Urban Legend heavy; that’s because it was the last time T.I. sounded this hungry while also being utterly self-possessed and confident enough to hang with the best.
2. “U Don’t Know Me”
If T.I. would come to be known as a slick hitmaker in his latter years, “U Don’t Know Me” is the song that ensured the streets would never turn away from him. Aggressive and gritty, but with a cocky flair that only the fast-talking Tip could master, the second single from Urban Legend was called a “Street Anthem of the Year” by Vibe magazine and established T.I. as a consistent hitmaker
1. “What You Know”
It might not be T.I.’s biggest hit, but real ones know that this anthem from King held the summer of 2006 in an absolute chokehold. It spent 20 weeks on the Hot 100 chart, with the RIAA certifying it platinum before the year was out. It was also the closing theme of ATL Tip’s acting debut and a bonafide hood classic coming-of-age tale that still spawns memes, pop culture moments, and nostalgic references to this day. “What You Know” is a rare example of a cult hit that also functions as an inescapable mega-smash.