King Tut in the tombs of Egypt, King Henry V in the battlefields of England, King Triton in the seas of Atlantica, King Mufasa on the top of Pride Rock and B.B King on the stages in Vegas, from an early age I was introduced to men of power, rulers of kingdoms, wearers of crowns and possessors of thrones. I saw them as mighty men, the status and title wasn’t meant to be worn by the ordinary.
T.I. never appeared to be just another average Joe rapping, he came into the game with a sense of self. On his first album he proclaimed himself to be the South’s king, a bold claim coming from a rapper who would be dropped from his label due to underwhelming sales. His name might have been hot in the streets, singles were getting radio rotation, but he had yet to prove himself as Atlanta’s ruler, let alone an entire region's. Commercial failure didn’t shake his confidence, two years later he would name the 14th song on his sophomore follow-up “KingOfTheSouth” and rap, “I'm the king cause I said it and I mean that shit.”
There was no way of knowing where T.I.’s career would go beyond 2003. He bounced back from being dropped but he wasn’t another Atlanta rapper trying to reach the club by going crunk, he took a slightly different approach, becoming the voice for the dope boys that wore rubberbands on their wrist as a symbol of wealth and rode around in Chevy’s with a trunk full of 25 to life. Drugs were dealt, laws were broken, life was lived on the west side where the strong ate the weak - he made the highs and lows of being a dope boy in the trap captivating. Life of lawlessness wasn’t some foreign concept in rap, especially drug dealing, Jay Z had already sold his kilos of coke, but the old subject was getting a new perspective by a charismatic southern gangster and it was slowly catching fire. He would be big but no one knew how big. Claiming to be king before anyone even knew of him showed self-assurance and a touch of arrogance. It never wavered, as if he could see his own future.
By his fourth album, the perfectly titled King, it was no longer a claim but a fact. His famous titled-fitted officially became a crown that could only be worn by someone who ascended to the top of rap hierarchy. 10 years later, an entire decade has passed since its release. While my memory is the opposite of an elephant I can recall being in high school and the anticipation that surrounded the album. You could feel it in the city, an anxiousness that something big was coming. He was one of the hometown heroes, adored by all, but after “What You Know” you could tell it was different, that single was the start of T.I. mania. It had all the swagger and bravado, the loaded 44’s and shiny chevy’s but T.I. was remove from the trap living the life of a popular rapper, now he was exiting jets before heading to the block. A street single that wasn’t just for the streets, it poured from every ringing phone and every rap radio station. Released in January but already slated to be the summer’s anthem. Attaching the single to ATL, the movie, was genius. New single, new album, new movie, all the right moves were made to make 2006 the biggest year of his career.
Like most albums from 2006, it leaked early. You couldn’t pull up to a stoplight without hearing trunks rattle with the bass booming and his voice boasting and bragging. He was so Atlanta, from his style to his drawl, he made you feel like you were riding with him through Zones 1-6, reminiscing on the old blocks and the new benefits of fame, feeling proud that one of our own had taken the city worldwide.
The music was good, better than good, it was obvious that T.I. wanted to prove his position and he said it loud and clear for everyone to hear. “King Back,” the song that kicks off the album, is perfect. The production is larger than life, big and boisterous, like the opening scene of a movie starring Gladiators. “King Back” isn’t just a title, Just Blaze made sure the beat sounds like a king returning from war with the heads of his enemies on a platter. The monologue, the blaring horns, T.I.’s boasting, it all comes together like an epic opening scene.
“I’m Talkin’ To You,” Just's second placement on the album, is equally as epic. The two beats were cut from the same thunderous cloth, T.I. sounds enormous, like he could simply step on any of the unnamed enemies that he is indirectly talking to, bringing new meaning to squashing beef. Most of the production on King is excellent. Mannie Fresh brought classic southern flavor on “Front Back” and the blistering “Top Back” will have you speeding through red lights and stop signs not worried about the flashing lights behind you. The beat is so insane Lil Wayne had to rap on it, quite possibly the first Mannie Fresh beat he touched since the Hot Boy break-up. The Neptunes-produced “Good Life” is elegant, Nick Fury’s “I’m Straight” is lush and funky, the Tony Galvin-hemled “You Know Who” is a bit of bombs exploding in your ear drums.
There was something for everyone, King really showcased Tip's range as a writer. “What You Know” and “Ride With Me” are anthmatic, catchy, and able to be embraced by the streets and the suburbs. Both have aged well, songs that take you back to the hot summer of 2006. “Why You Wanna” gives you the best blend of gangster and gentleman, that not as soft as “Whatever You Like” but far from the vulgarity of “Let's Get Away.” “Live In The Sky” is still incredible, T.I. pours out his emotions as he reflects on the friends and family that are no longer here. Jamie Foxx kills and he does it without being Ray Charles. The final verse, I believe is one of T.I.’s best. The way he juxtaposes being a superstar rapper and a 7 time felon. Entering a new life while still being haunted by the sins of your past is difficult but it’s amplified when you’re living a life in the spotlight. There’s always a price on the head that carries the crown, from the benevolent to the tyrants, no one is completely safe. That paranoia and the murder of his friend is what sent T.I. down a very deep and dark rabbit hole of jail sentences but hearing him rap, “It's a Catch-22, either you lose or you lose” after all the trouble that he faced is another example of him foreseeing his future, that the game wasn’t structured for his triumphant but his downfall.
My parents owned a skating rink during the release of ATL and the film made business boom. Just like Roll Bounce, the movie sent all the pleased viewers headed to the nearest roller rink. So many skate crews formed that summer, every guy wanted to be Rashad and find his New New. It's far from the perfect movie, T.I.’s acting wouldn’t award him an Oscar, but you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing someone quoting a line or phrase. So many would just come to the rink and recite their favorite quotes, it was cute for a few weeks but there’s only so many times you can hear, “No ticket, no skates” and watch them chuckle. A cult-classic. With the hottest movie and the hottest album out that summer T.I. was on the tip of every tongue. He was out of the trap but the music industry had begun to embrace it. He escaped the street life by taking those stories from the blocks to the burbs, making trap music commercially acceptable and paving the way for Atlanta artists that weren’t snapping and dancing. Rappers like Jeezy, Gucci, Boyz-N-Da-Hood, and the countless other street rappers that would come after ran through the same door that T.I. had been prying open since 2001.
There’s a lot of similarities you can draw between Jay Z and T.I. They are from opposite hemispheres but both entered the game as cats that came from the street who discovered their talent for capturing the life through rhyme. Jay Z’s Brooklyn and T.I.’s Bankhead were rough areas where the hustlers roamed, both escaped their former lifestyles through rapping. They got out of the game and entered various new ones as businessmen. Importantly, they were able to clean up their images to be acceptable in circles and corporations that would frown upon their past. Jay Z stabbing a man is almost like an urban legend even though it’s a real thing that happened in real life. T.I. of course has a harder time hiding his troubles with the law and a temper that can flair up at the drop of a dime. Still, despite the guns and the beefs, he is still seen as a gentlemen more than a gangster these days. There’s more memes about his hilarious use of old English and usage of S.A.T words than mentioning he’s been to jail more times than the Joker has been to Arkham. Despite having been on more apology tours than Chris Brown, T.I. has always been met with forgiveness. The mistakes never made the man, which is why the man never lost the people, we just accepted that our king was flawed but still the king. There isn’t anywhere he can’t go in Atlanta, dare I say the south that won’t greet him with a warm salute.
In the 10 years since King, since T.I. became the undisputed ruler of the south, no new rappers have tried to claim the title like he did on his first album. Surprisingly, he was challenged to a hat tilting contest before someone grasped for his crown.The crown still sits on his head, a bit old, a bit tattered, but perfectly positioned. His time on the throne didn’t come without a few swords swinging for his head - he survived war with Flip, Luda and Shawty Lo. He felt the pain of loss after the murder of his bodyguard Phil and again when his artist Doe B was murdered in his hometown of Alabama. There was plenty of time for someone to steal his seat during all the prison sentences that came after King. It was if he reached the very top but was constantly being dragged back down to the bottom due to decisions that are extremely hard to make when you’re a seven-time felon on probation and a superstar rapper paranoid that all you obtained could be taken away.
T.I. would go on to be heard across the globe, seen on the big and small screen, acquire plaques and trophies, introduce artists and end careers, and while King wasn’t the start of his success it was the album that signified the South had finally found its ruler.
The kingdom may look different now than it did 10 years ago but the pages in the history books are already cemented with his story. Trap Muzik, Urban Legends, and King, the story of how a former dope boy found his throne in the music industry. Veni, vidi, vici is Latin for I came, I saw, I conquered, it’s the perfect phrase to describe T.I.’s reign in rap. Long live the king.
Bonus: The Making Of T.I.'s King