T.I.’s Turmoil Inspired Grammy-Nominated Paper Trail

'With so much struggle going on, he wanted to speak from the heart,' DJ Toomp says of Best Rap Album contender.

If adversity is the spark that creates exceptional art, then T.I.’s Paper Trail should be the runaway winner for Best Rap Album at the Grammy Awards on Sunday.

“I think that T.I. should win, because he has a solid album, a huge presence and a great story,” Hot 97 News Director Minya Oh — a.k.a. Miss Info — told MTV News last week.

The “story” she’s referring to, of course, is the rapper’s 2007 arrest on federal weapons charges . As a previously convicted felon, the Atlanta lyricist faced upward of 30 years in prison for his offense. His recording home, Atlantic Records, partnered with T.I. to post a $3 million bond , and the rapper was confined to house arrest for months. He lost endorsement deals, his career was in jeopardy, and his future freedom was uncertain.

Then T.I. announced he would return to writing his rhymes down — instead of composing them strictly in his head — and channel his emotions into his next album.

“T.I. rebounded by doing what a very great artist does: It’s pouring your life — whether good or bad — into the music,” XXL magazine’s Bonsu Thompson explained. “He put [his heart] into his art. His biggest single was ‘Live Your Life,’ and if you listen to the lyrics, he was speaking about himself.”

Paper Trail included a number of introspective songs, including the first track to surface from the project, “No Matter What.” The pensive number found the rapper recalling his faith, firing back at all the gossip surrounding his case and revealing his bravado in the face of turmoil. “Facing all kinds of time, but smile like I’m fine,” he rapped on the song.

“You know how usually on the album I’ll do one record, like ‘I Still Luv You’ [or] ‘Still Ain’t Forgave Myself,’ ” he told MTV News in May about Paper Trail‘s concept . “It’s gonna be significantly more of those [types of records] on this album. I guess you could say there are definitely more songs that are just as introspective, just as personal, just as well-written.”

Tip’s frequent collaborator, DJ Toomp, also noted that the rapper was dealing with more than just his gun case; he was also still grieving over the murder of childhood friend Philant Johnson . Johnson was tragically gunned down in Cincinnati following a T.I. show in Ohio.

“On this particular album, he was going through ups and downs — and not even with his case, but losing friends along the way,” Toomp told MTV News on Thursday (February 5). “And with so much struggle going on, he wanted to speak from the heart and put real thought into it, go into more details. Sometimes you can go in the booth and just spit. And you may cover something but not get the gist of everything. But he said, ‘Let me put my pen to work.’ I was hesitant at first, but after I heard the first few songs, I knew he was on the right path. He was able to paint more pictures.”

The album wasn’t all melancholy, though. He scored back-to-back #1 records , replacing himself at the top of the charts with “Whatever You Like” and “Live Your Life,” featuring Rihanna. And the King of the South defended his throne with the mercurial “What Up, What’s Haapnin’,” targeting nemesis Shawty Lo .

“It’s a lot of bullsh– out right now,” Tip said to MTV News before his album dropped. “I’m not gonna front. I feel it’s definitely about time for somebody to come back out and kick this thing back in gear. The rotation is suffering right now. I intend to do something about it. It’s just a matter of when.”

Will Lil Wayne grab all the gramophones? Is Katy Perry going to tell her girl rivals to kiss off? Can Coldplay march off with a win? MTV News is all over the 51st Annual Grammy Awards, so stay tuned for interviews, analysis and more before, during and after the big night, Sunday, February 8.