Solo Albums: Trap Muzik (2003), Urban Legend (2004), King (2006), T.I. vs. T.I.P. (2007)
Group Albums: n/a
Biggest Hits: "Rubber Band Man" (2003), "Bring Em Out" (2004), "U Don't Know Me" (2005), "What You Know" (2006), "Whatever You Like" (2007)
T.I.'s commercial peak came just after his best five-year period on a creative level; one can't help but think he might have received more serious consideration as one of hip-hop's best MCs had his twin 2008 No. 1 singles ("Whatever You Like" and "Live Your Life") coincided with his 2003-2007 run. For it was that period in the mid-2000s that T.I. often seemed like hip-hop's most important new voice. He represented Atlanta at a time when it was truly on the ascent, introducing a new sound, new culture, and new plethora of street heroes to the charts. Of them all, Tip seemed to have best captured a nobility of purpose, a moral sense, and a down-to-earth humanity that set him apart from then-triumphant stars with a more bulletproof persona—Jay Z, 50 Cent, Cam'ron, and Young Jeezy. He was from the trap, but he was human, and he sold stories about his origins in a way that often seemed to undercut any sense of glorification.
From a creative perspective, Tip confounded outsider's presumptions about Southern rap. Although delivered in a strong Southern drawl, he was a fierce lyricist with a fluent double-time, he could keep up with the best New York lyrical miracles. He also had a rough street edge that gave his early singles a threatening dimension. And yet he retained the more blues-inspired first-person confessional narratives popular in the wake of rappers like 2Pac and Scarface.
His career almost never happened; his debut record had flopped, despite high-profile beats from The Neptunes, and he was forced back underground. His reign began in earnest in the summer of 2003, with Volumes 2 and 3 of his In Da Streets mixtape series. Then there was his scene-stealing verse on Bonecrusher's "Never Scared," one of those verses that launches a career. The rapper slowed his flow to make each word deliberate, letting the grit fleck his vocals as he dissed a host of unnamed rivals. Trap Muzik—a true hip-hop classic—came next, laying out a multi-dimensional artist unafraid of conflict, but far from unconflicted. He claimed the throne as King of the South, dispatched Lil Flip in one of the most one-sided victories in hip-hop history.
From there, T.I. was on the ascent. His third album, 2004's Urban Legend, landed the rapper his first top ten single with the Jay Z-sampling "Bring 'Em Out." This five-year period included four million-selling albums—the last two of which, 2006's King and 2007's T.I. vs. T.I.P., hit the charts at No. 1. King single "What You Know" struck the charts at No. 3, the highest spot for a T.I. song yet.
Although 2008's Paper Trail would make T.I. a bona fide pop star, it was at the expense of some of the moments that made his music its most interesting. From a creative perspective, it was King that became his crowning achievement. The South's industry takeover had been completed; Houston had its moment, Three 6 Mafia had won an Oscar, and Lil Jon had gone from underdog to pop culture phenomenon and was on the way to obsolescence. But rather than following contemporary Southern production trends, Tip zigged when he was supposed to zag. King was built on triumphant New York-friendly Just Blaze beats, a furious show of the rapper's technical prowess, a tip (no pun intended) of the cap to his hip-hop fans. And the hoisting of a flag. Rap had a bold new ruler. — David Drake