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There once was a Douglass High School principal in Atlanta, Georgia who encouraged his students to employ a sophisticated vocabulary in their speech. He walked the hallways like a southern Joe Louis Clark whose sections of his life made it to the big screen as played by Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me (1989). Enter Clifford Harris. A young knucklehead who was as backward as his hat in his ways. Even though he would drop out of high school eventually, he never forgot the teachings and lessons that he learned from this Atlanta principal. Fast forward about twelve years and one of the hottest MC’s to ever come from the womb of the South, T.I./TIP emerged with a flow and a unique way of expressing his music like the blues. He picked up the slang of the streets and called it trap music, stylized as TRAP MUZIK. After a slew of altercations with the law, T.I. would be a number one best selling artist while contending against the clutches of the carceral system.
So, is T.I. the Idiot, or the Intellectual? His raps point towards a man who has his head on correctly and his mind made active. With lines like, “Your values is in disarray, prioritizin' horribly/ Unhappy with the riches/ 'Cause you're piss poor morally” from his 2008 smash hit “Live Your Life” with singer Rihanna, that exemplifies a thoughtful and clever wordsmith, T.I. appears to be within the limits of a philosophical advocate for rationality and ethics. The whole time that the song was recorded and released and after the song snatched the top spot on the charts, T.I. would face felonies regarding guns and accessories. This chasm between the stellar performer and supporter of morality never fully exists on a single plain. He isn’t the mindful rap artist without being the conflicted convict. But one who takes issue with the problems of the day, T.I. has demonstrated that it is within him that he speaks from the platform at which he stands.
The idea of trap music is specific to the inner cities of America but has grown to global proportions. Though some would say otherwise, Clifford “T.I.” Harris initiated the entire musical movement with his initial releases. It’s a metaphor for his life and career. At once, it’s productive and industrious if not tainted by the fact the individual is selling poison, but it also is dangerous on all fronts. The dealer has to worry about connections being severed with distributors, drug addicts and competition gunning them down in the streets, or being locked up for the rest of their life over some powder crystallized into rocks. T.I. has walked this fine line of being immensely fruitful in his efforts while still being caught up in the streets. His arrests and prison sentences only point to the man whose consciousness may be shredding apart at every event he hosts and at every trial he attends. Talented and able to make points politically and esthetically, T.I. has charted a course for himself to bounce back between the worlds of the industry of music and the allure of the streets. His understanding of past leaders within the African American struggle have taken him to the heights of initiating a discussion over various topics including the idea of wearing certain brands.
In February of 2019, Harris revolted against multi-millionaire Floyd Mayweather in a song called “F–– N––” stating that “the greatest reward comes with obligations,” which in T.I. speak means that Mr. Mayweather ought to save his money and invest it. The whole row arose after Mayweather continued to support the brand Gucci after they ran a line of sweaters reflecting blackface. Again, the split in his approach and all of the arrests and incarcerations only show that Harris is poised to voice his opinion but unable to hide his past misdeeds. For almost two decades, T.I. has been evolving into the man that he is right now. While memes mock his extraordinary speaking ability which can be overwrought at the times and punctuated at the end with a piece of slang, he marches on with a renewed sense of self. T.I.’s achievement is his undeniable talent. He has not been blessed by some mystical consciousness nor endowed by society with the skills that he possesses.
Because he is a man of color who happens to live in America, it is to him both a positive and a negative to talk about his trials and travails. Lockups and conflict with the law all point to a man that’s seemingly out of control. In one instance, he’s laying down some of the most superb flows that anyone has ever heard out of the South or any other part of the country or world, period. Yet, he’s got this inkling to commit a crime that brings him five steps forward and ten steps back. His agenda is to succeed in the rap game while “so much greatness but not so many make it wonder how come?/ It’s been that way since Huey Newton, Martin, Malcolm” to him. He’s witnessed so many deleterious effects of the drug business that to him, the music business still seems like a tough lane. He’s experienced successes that he could only imagine as that eight-year-old rhyming to beats back in middle school. But it’s that youthful drive that remains with him in his late thirties. A particular mission brings T.I. to places like again announcing to boycott fashion brand Burberry for its use of nooses aligned with its collection. T.I. finds himself as a moral authority when it comes to issues that could affect businesses, but looking at his own track record, it appears as if he wrestles with the idea of whether people take him seriously. Coincidentally, he released his first album called I’m Serious in 2004. Some may find it difficult to listen to a man who has had so many encounters on the wrong side of law enforcement.
It may be a challenge for T.I. to gain and or keep the respect, admiration, and acknowledgments of people who listen to his music or casually observe what goes on in the rap universe. Harris still shines bright after achieving a feat that most rappers never get to see; he has dropped ten albums in total. Within those works lie moments of pain, joy, honor, knowledge, and understanding. Irony follows T.I. as all of the pain brought him successes beyond most people’s conceptions. Further irony is the idea of someone connected to the streets involving himself in public service announcements. While this may be noble to upstanding citizens, street urchins will find the idea of “snitching” to be a detriment. Also, those same urchins would be running down to the precincts to ask who perpetrated force against their grandparents, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces. This stance that Harris took to illustrate that all initiation of physical force is evil should be a bellwether to other rappers.
The code of the streets is to keep your mouth shut, shun speaking with authorities, and remain mum about any activity that an individual might find him or herself in at a particular time. Harris exploded this vicious doctrine when he decided to cooperate with the police. He found it more important to bring about change within the backward “Stop Snitching” campaign and found enough flack for it in the process. With labels like “rat” and “stool pigeon” applied to his name, T.I. he had to fight for his respect in the rap game. So, he went the activist route. By joining fellow Atlanta spokesmen like Michael “Killer Mike” Render, T.I. developed a lane to speak out on topics that impact the people that buy his albums, specifically. But on a wider the scale, he has mastered the art of diction and message brought together. Through experimentation and a constant hustle, T.I. has brought with him the power of words to transform and reform the seedier aspects of the world stage.
What separates T.I. from most rappers is that his intentions remain genuine. He speaks from his mind and injects soul and wit into all that he says. Now, of course, his criminal history will always be a hindrance to some. They can’t be blamed as T.I. continues to be a polarizing figure. You have to catch him on the right day to experience whether he’ll be locked up with the platinum cuffs behind his back or watching him purchase stunning platinum bracelets. In one day he’ll be doing the “perp walk” and in the same day he could be released on bail and headed to a Boys and Girls Club to speak about being life-loving, independent individuals. Harris has the opportunity while he is out of the legal system to address all of the problems that plague his psyche. From reducing recidivism, to those fashion lines that he beefs with, Harris is in a direct position to legitimize his role as someone who can talk a good game but struggles to act on those nuggets of wisdom. As a multi-millionaire, he has every right to keep and dispose of his money how he sees fit. He himself does not even share this view. He feels that he should be passing out alms to the needy and still be a vociferous, ego-driven, master of ceremonies on the microphone.
This is nothing new within the hip hop sphere. Harris is just a further extension of the mixed premises of rappers. He wants to show off his Wraith Rolls Royce while at the same time remember the downtrodden and give away a fraction of his riches out altruism. T.I. has the makings of an intellectual. Much like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Huey Newton, T.I. found himself behind bars. Much unlike these figures, T.I. has been incarcerated for charges that differ from these men. Additionally, he may lack the proper philosophical backing and underlying intellectual thrust to be a full-fledged thinker on the world stage. For his intentions, he ought to be lauded. His understanding of business and ability to transform verses into ethical statements without sounding too preachy grant T.I. the ability to define his own character. He has the wherewithal to determine his future. Whether that is in the booth laying down substantive tracks or in the back of a paddy wagon ready to go behind bars, Harris must decide. He has had a rocky life. It appears that he has brought most of his woes upon himself. That’s where the T.I. the Idiot comes into play. He has sacrificed his time out in the world for the four brick walls within a prison cell. He has made a beautiful life. He has brought children into this world, accelerated to the top of the charts, and helped launch the careers of artists in his roster. It is completely up to Harris from the time that he walked the halls of his high school in his youth to the days that he stands as a man, now. The aftermath all of the run-ins with the law and wild behavior matched with the thoughtful, measured speaker should allow Harris to wake up and view the good that he has within him expel the bad. With his ear to the street, he ought to pick up the rhythms and change his verbosity into speaking plain. He holds the power to take the ‘hood mentality and change it into a political statement that should be one of uplift and reverence for character and intelligence. The way for him to achieve all of this is to drop the buffoonery and criminality. He can look at his children and say to himself, “I’ve got to represent for me of course, but for them as well.” This was his principal’s dream for him. T.I. just has to realize it.