As an artist, you can either follow the latest trend or set the standard.
Never one to march behind anyone else, rapper/songwriter/producer T.I. has crafted a standard-setting career that includes three Grammy Awards and status as a hip-hop icon. But that doesn’t mean the superstar is content to rest on those hard-won laurels.
“Doing music the way I’ve always done it would only have me receive the same amount of success I’ve had,” says T.I. “I firmly believe that to get something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done. So to be more successful, I needed to open myself up to other perspectives.”
And the King of the South is doing just that as he ramps up the next bar-raising phase in his storied career with Paperwork. The rapper’s ninth album is the first under the new alliance between T.I.’s Grand Hustle label and Columbia Records.
Coming off their winning collaboration on Robin Thicke’s international smash “Blurred Lines,” T.I. tapped Pharrell Williams as executive producer of Paperwork. The set also boasts Timbaland, DJ Mustard and longtime T.I. colleague DJ Toomp as producers. The aim: creative growth outside the box without alienating the rapper’s legion of fans.
“Aside from DJ Toomp, it’s the first time I’ve allowed a producer to come in and kind of shape my sound as he saw fit,” says an re-energized T.I. “You must find ways to reinvent yourself in order to remain relevant. And who better to help me than someone as passionate and talented as Pharrell? He found a way to bring a colorful, left-field approach to my blue-collar celebrity. Between his wings and my anchor, we balance each other out. That duality is what makes this project unique.”
And early signs show that T.I. hasn’t lost his touch. Already tipping the chart scales is Paperwork’s lead single “No Mediocre” featuring Australian rapper and T.I. protégé Iggy Azalea. Simultaneously whipping up its own buzz is street single “About the Money” featuring Young Thug.
Destined to leave a strong imprint as well are the “left-field” tracks that comprise Paperwork. Chief among those is the riveting “New National Anthem.” The hard-hitting mid-tempo track reveals T.I.’s socio-political persona as he pits society’s ideals (“Home of the brave and free”) against its harsh realities (“need fitting lyric line here”).
Just as penetrating is the melodic title track. With producer Pharrell providing guest vocals in the vein of Curtis Mayfield, the song skillfully weaves contemporary and old-school influences in a colorful tapestry rife with autobiographical touchstones (“welfare stamps,” “fake ID,” “drinking Hennessey”).
The song and the album’s direction were inspired by T.I.’s game-changing 2008 album Paper Trail. “You certify authenticity by checking paperwork,” explains the Atlanta native. “And I wanted to match the quality and diversity of Paper Trail without sounding dated or compromising any of the new-age sounds.” Rounding out Paperwork’s aural palette is a diverse lineup of collaborators that includes producers Mars of 1500 or Nothin’ and KinoBeats, singer/songwriter Victoria Monet, Atlanta trio Watch the Duck, rappers Jeezy, Problem and Grand Hustle’s Trae tha Truth.
“It’s people from different genres who are skilled in so many other different areas,” says T.I. “It’s people who can make music that is either so extremely soulful that it almost feels like T.I. should do it or make music so left-field that you can’t even see how T.I. could find a way to do it.”
Finding ways to keep fans anticipating what’s next has always been T.I.’s stock in trade. His distinct flow and lyrical skills drew widespread national attention with 2003’s Trap Muzik. His eight-album catalog includes three consecutive No. 1 debuts on the Billboard 200 (2006’s King, 2007’s T.I. vs. T.I.P. and 2008’s Paper Trail). His most recent album, inspired by soul legend Marvin Gaye, was 2012’s “Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head. The rapper also counts a string of hit singles, among them “Bring ‘Em Out,” “What You Know,” “Whatever You Like,” “Live Your Life” featuring Rihanna and “Dead and Gone” featuring Justin Timberlake. His multi-platinum tally includes a total of four Billboard Hot 100 No. 1’s plus sales of more than 30 million singles and 14 million albums. Along the way, he has collaborated with other such marquee artists as Jay Z, Robin Thicke, Lil Wayne, Lady Gaga, Drake and Kanye West.
Music isn’t T.I.’s only forte. A published author (“Power & Beauty,” Trouble & Triumph”), he has racked up notable acting credits, including the films “Identity Thief,” “Takers,” “American Gangster” and “ATL” plus a guest-starring role in the Showtime series “House of Lies.” Coming later this year: a role in the upcoming Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell comedy “Get Hard.” The business entrepreneur and community service advocate also stars in VH1’s “T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle.” Now in its third season, the high-rated unscripted series features his wife Tameka “Tiny” Cottle and their blended family of six children.
But music remains at the core of T.I.’s various pursuits; the rapper says he and Pharrell recorded more than 200 songs during the Paperwork process.
“When I first sat down with Pharrell, he told me to think ‘out of the stratosphere,’ recalls T.I. “What solidifies the resulting Paperwork is a unique blend of refreshing yet timeless material. As Pharrell would put it, we’re trying to rewrite history.”