As T.I. looks at serving up to a year in prison following his recent guilty plea on federal weapons charges, an obvious question is: What will it mean for his career? In addition to a string of platinum albums and hit singles, Tip was on the verge of seeing his acting career take off before his arrest in October, thanks to his role in "American Gangster."
And while he wouldn't be the first rapper to have his career put on hold by a prison sentence, the possible year-long stretch would come after T.I. has already served more than six months on house arrest. Though he's been using his time at home to work on his next album, Paper Trail, the confinement has mostly taken him out of the public eye since the fall.
As part of his sentence, T.I. (born Clifford Harris Jr.) must complete at least 1,000 hours of community service talking to kids about the ills of guns, drugs and gangs. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, if the rapper abides by the conditions of his plea agreement, he will likely serve less than the one year and one day sentence that was imposed. That will be determined in March 2009, the paper reports. He was also sentenced to a year of home confinement, minus the time he's already served locked down in his Atlanta-area home to date.
One of T.I.'s attorneys, Ed Garland, told the paper that his client is free to "perform, act in movies [and] carry on with his business until the end of the 12-month period," though he will be shadowed by a private security officer at all times who will report on him if he strays from the court-appointed conditions. Even if he is able to promote Paper Trail later this year, the prison sentence will take T.I. off the scene for a long stretch for the second time in two years, an eternity in the here-today-gone-tomorrow-morning rap game.
There's never a good time to go to prison. But, depending on the trajectory of their careers, some artists can survive, or even thrive, during their time away, according to Chaz Williams, CEO of Black Hand Entertainment and manager of incarcerated rapper Foxy Brown.
"It's bad for an artist to be taken away from their career for any amount of time, whether it's through sickness or any other unfortunate circumstance," said Williams. "The difference is that some artists are 'padded' better than others, depending on what level of their career they're at."
In contrast to Remy Ma — who appeared unprepared for her recent 20-plus year sentence in connection with the shooting of an acquaintance — Williams pointed out that T.I., thanks to his plea deal, may have up to a year to get his business affairs in order before entering prison.
"If I was in T.I.'s shoes, I would probably record an album and put it out in the fourth quarter [of 2008]," Williams said. "Do some remixes and get an EP and several videos done, so I have enough stuff to fuel my career at a certain level until I get out."
Unlike Foxy — whose career had hit a plateau before her incarceration last year, and, who, like Remy Ma, did not have as much time to prepare for her prison time — Williams said T.I.'s career won't likely be derailed by the prison time. The rapper did time in 2003, after being found guilty of violating his probation from an earlier drug conviction. Williams said Tip's image as someone familiar with the street drug trade and the violence that brings, for good or ill, is inseparable from his rap persona.
"I don't want to say it happened at a good time in his career, because there's never a good time to go to prison, but he has established himself with that mystique of his problems in the past, and it's part of who he is."
Noted hip-hop lawyer Stacey Richman — who has defended Lil Wayne, DMX, Busta Rhymes and Ja Rule on criminal charges involving guns and drugs — also said rappers can blunt the impact of a prison sentence by organizing their affairs before going away, noting that for some, for better or worse, it can almost confer hero status among fans who perceive them as "taking it like a man." The same could be said for other entertainers too.
"Look at Martha Stewart; [going to prison] was the greatest thing that ever happened to her," said Richman of the domestic diva, who launched a successful talk show after she did a five-month prison bid in 2004 for lying to investigators about a stock sale; some feel the sentence helped to humanize Stewart. "It opened her up to markets that she would never have reached before. As much as the government wants to appear to be cracking down, they take the risk of glorifying someone who they're trying to make an example of."
T.I.'s label and the producers and casting directors for the two movies T.I. has appeared in so far, "ATL" and "Gangster," declined to comment for this story. But according to director/screenwriter David Ayer, there are many headaches associated with casting a rapper with legal issues. He cast Compton MC the Game in his upcoming movie, "Street Kings," and the production had to work around Game's court schedule when the rapper became entangled in a gun case while the film was being made.
"We had an all-night shoot, and the next morning he had to go to court on gun charges," said Ayer, the writer of "Training Day." "And I thought, 'Thank God the court date didn't come up when we were scheduled to shoot!"
Ayer said he cast Game and Common in his movie because he's found that many rappers are "natural actors who really understand showbiz and film." The issue when choosing a rapper who might not be completely divorced from their street life, he said, really comes down to how comfortable you are with working around the legal issues. "It's about scheduling. If all of a sudden you have to work around the justice system, and it's competing for their time, or if they get locked up and their bond is revoked and they're not available?"
Asked if he would cast T.I. in a movie, Ayer said he would. If there were a conflict, he would have someone waiting in the wings should the rapper not be available because of his legal problems.
"No one can cast the guy right now, but I guarantee when he gets out, he will get some offers," Ayer said. "If you show up and do your job and you're a hard worker and you add something to the movie, whether it's street cred or a following or you're just a good, natural actor, you will be back."
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for troubled actors, whether it's Lindsay Lohan or T.I., is getting insured for a movie, but Ayer said if T.I. keeps working on studio films, he should have no problem getting covered. "I'm sure he's bondable, because all they care about is, 'Are they alive? Will they drop dead?' "
The other side, however, is that the movie business is all about momentum, Ayer said, and building off your last job, so when T.I. goes away, he will have a bit of starting over to do.
While incarceration can give artists a whole new universe of experience to tap into with their art, Richmond said the prospect of prison time is destructive to performers' psyche, as well as that of their family.
"So much of the art that is in this realm of music are the tales of the people that many aspects of society don't want to believe exist," she said. "It's speaking of the truth of it, and they can bring a whole new level of reality to a genre that is the folklore of society today. On the other hand, they are distracted from their career and can't focus on their art. It can be financially and emotionally devastating, and no matter who you are, when you're facing charges, the impact is overwhelming."