June is Black Music Month, a celebration of black music, culture and the history that has been built into pop culture for decades from styles, sounds and more. With that, Radio One is doing The Great Debates, a series of essays, polls and more based around some of the greatest black artists of their time and more.
This week, 97.9 The Box is doing the Great Debate of T.I. and Ludacris. Two artists who blew up in Atlanta around identical times, beefed, reconciled, went into movies and delivered countless hits from the club to the bedroom to solo nights riding down the block. For the first entry in our T.I. vs. Luda debate, we look at 2003 to 2006, the years T.I. firmly established himself as a King and in some eyes – the Jay-Z of the South.
The space where you etch out Clifford “T.I.” Harris’ name and stature in hip-hop is going to be a large one. It may have a crown on top because the man loves the concept of royalty. There will be mentions of his past feuds, his running with absolute glee in taking down Lil Flip and Shawty Lo and going toe-to-toe with Ludacris. That space will tell you that T.I. defended Atlanta, Bankhead and Bowen Homes as if he were the city’s Iron Man. And it will no doubt mention that for a period between 2003 and April 2006, the only other rapper who could say they had a similar accent to be crowned one of the genre’s best is Lil Wayne.
Pharrell Williams decided to beat everyone to the punch in 2001 when the two worked on T.I.’s debut album, I’m Serious. “He’s the Jay-Z of the South,” Skateboard P exclaimed. To the Virginia producer, it wasn’t hyperbole. Listening back to I’m Serious and it sounds as rooted in the middle of the streets and the board room as it did 19 years ago. “Still Ain’t Forgave Myself” was Tip’s form of penance, an autobiography on how wanting more drove him to take jailhouse chances and then left him without friends due to jail and the grave. He apologizes for not graduating, for his friend making the wrong decision and landing behind bars for life and so on. “You Must Love Me,” indeed.
Two years after I’m Serious and off Arista, a large chunk of the world beyond Atlanta got to learn about Tip. A guest appearance on Bonecrusher‘s “Never Scared” served as the precursor to what would become four years of T.I. hits and massive commercial success. “24s” stayed on rotation on BET, same for “Rubber Band Man” and when Trap Muzik arrived in October 2003, Atlanta had yet another solo star to hang its hat on from the Westside of the city. To this day, T.I. will tell you he coined the term Trap Muzik and helped establish a whole genre of Atlanta that eventually gave way to an evolved version of trap.
The Jay-Z comparisons from Pharrell started ringing true even more. “Still Ain’t Forgave Myself” from I’m Serious was an apology and a form of therapy. Its sequel in regards to the theme was “I Still Luv You,” where Tip found himself confessing his sins to the mother of his kids and absolving those of his father all at once. His father left and went to Manhattan and in some ways, T.I. walked in the same shoes as his old man and he had to admit it to the world.
You probably never knew, ’cause hey, I never said it
But pops, I’m just like you, I’m stubborn and I’m hardheaded
Not soon after the success of Trap Muzik came the beef with Lil Flip. The Down With The King Gangsta Grillz with DJ Drama remains a staple in both men’s catalog as it showed that if given enough venom, T.I. could go bar for bar in a battle and do work. As would come far too common in his career, a jail stint derailed his momentum. A probation violation dating back to a 1998 drug charge, kept him behind bars for a brief period in 2004. When he reappeared on stage at Birthday Bash 9 in 2004 to fully ignite his war with Flip over who was the King of the South, he’d become a fully realized superstar.
Urban Legend, T.I.’s follow-up album to Trap Muzik arrived on November 30, 2004. Weeks before the release, he was on Destiny’s Child‘s “Soldier” with Lil Wayne. Then came the mammoth assault of “Motivation,” “U Don’t Know Me,” “Bring Em Out,” “ASAP,” and the cult classic “Stand Up” with Lil Jon, Trick Daddy and the aforementioned Wayne. Earlier that year, Wayne declared he was the “Best Rapper Alive … since the Best Rapper retired.” Now he and Tip were on equal footing in their own way.
By 2005, finally with a year of his mind being free to absolutely take over and prove he indeed was the King of the South, T.I. kept pushing. Feature verses, guest appearances and tour dates. Even a full album for the Pimp Squad Click aka P$C that were standard on all Tip albums. Everybody ate. America had come to known T.I. as a household name. As the fall of 2005 turned into the winter of 2005 and 2006, the anticipation for Tip’s follow up to Urban Legend was hitting.
Enter King, Tip’s commercial crown jewel.
Released at the same time as his feature film debut in ATL, the album went gold in its first week and nabbed T.I. his first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart. It’s as strong a three-album run in Atlanta rap history and possibly only behind OuKast’s four consecutive world-changers as the best three-album stretch an Atlanta rapper has had, ever. There’s one undeniable classic in Trap Muzik as it shifted the course of direction for Tip’s career. Urban Legend solidified him as a hitmaker who could carry an entire party by himself if necessary. King solidified him on the charts, to corporate America and more.
The King was indeed here in 2006, making Pharrell’s prophecy ring truer and truer by the minute.