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How T.I. Became A King

Ten years later, King is still a crowning landmark for Southern hip-hop

By Julian Kimble

T.I. wears many crowns in 2016: He's the wise patriarch seen on T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle, the head of Grand Hustle Records, and a well-respected rap OG. In 2006, though, the Atlanta MC was still an ascendant artist who had yet to access the crossover appeal that lay beneath his cocksure street anthems. Ten years ago this week, the release of his fourth album, King, changed that for good. King was T.I.’s turning point, the gear-shifter that catapulted him to superstardom by engaging his pop instincts and illuminating his contradictory personality like never before. “What You Know,” the album's exultant double-platinum signature, flaunted his progress and polish to a dramatically expanded audience. King was the coronation moment for a generation-defining rapper, and a decade later, it's still Peak T.I.

Clifford “Tip” Harris Jr. has spent his career balancing two warring sides within him: the convicted felon at risk of self-sabotage (whom he's dubbed T.I.P.) and the keen entrepreneur gliding at ease through society (known to the world as T.I.). The tension between those two halves accounts for his elasticity as an artist: He’s exceptionally versatile, mixing gentlemanly Southern charm with an underdog fighter's tenacity. As the definitive Libra, he’s the personification of the “Get you a man who can do both” meme — and King explored that duality with the greatest success.

For all of their divergent qualities, T.I. and T.I.P. are both defined by unshakable confidence. On T.I.’s raw 2001 debut, I’m Serious, that could read as unwarranted arrogance. His second album, 2003’s Trap Muzik, showed a slightly more poised artist but one still overly eager to prove himself. The follow-up, Urban Legend, was released deep into 2004, the year in which T.I. blew up but nearly blew his chance at stardom after a probation violation landed him in jail. His popularity grew with each of these projects, but the battle within him limited his potential success until King, when he figured out how to match the best parts of T.I. and T.I.P. on one album — dialing back his aggression just enough to appeal to a wider audience without abandoning his trap roots.

After solving the puzzle on King, T.I. basked in the gleam of his accomplishment. His entire demeanor was suddenly different, each verse exuding self-satisfaction. Where his “King of the South” boasts once felt aspirational, they now rang out like affirmation. “Need you be reminded / Want it with Your Highness?” he asked on “King Back,” oozing effortless self-assurance over Just Blaze’s blaxploitation-film-worthy backdrop. “I’m Talkin’ to You,” also produced by Just Blaze, channeled T.I.P.’s confrontational nature but with a veteran’s savvy. T.I. spent the early portion of his career peacocking in bold fashion, announcing himself at every entrance. Three albums in, he realized that his sought-after validation had been earned. He'd grown more reflective, too: He was 25 when King was released, an age where the reality of adulthood often begins to sink in, and “Goodlife” found a pensive, thankful T.I. assessing his past and present over subtle Neptunes keys: “But like that pimpin’, time flash by you / Now I wonder what the judge think as he readin’ my priors.”

King was a pivotal leap forward for T.I. — a sublime flourish that needed to feel spectacular. That began with its commanding opening statement. To this day, no T.I. single has felt like more of a flex than “What You Know.”

“What You Know” signaled the arrival of a star. T.I. had never been shy about telling everyone he was the shit, but he did it here with more brash proficiency than ever. From the majestic surge of DJ Toomp’s production to the firm conviction in T.I.’s delivery, everything about “What You Know” felt self-aware. It was grandiose without being self-important — literal red carpet music.

Three days after King's release, the coming-of-age drama ATL hit theaters with T.I. in the starring role and "What You Know" as its theme. T.I.'s crowning moment now spanned two mediums. Together, the album and the film signaled Southern hip-hop’s victory over a regional inferiority complex: They were evidence that Atlanta in particular had something more nuanced to offer to the mainstream than Lil Jon’s crunk, Dem Franchize Boyz's and D4L’s snap, and the sage trap wisdom of Young Jeezy, who raised the stakes with his Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 the previous summer. By 2006, T.I. had become the most important Atlanta rap act since Outkast, and his success with King deserves a large share of credit for the city’s position at hip-hop's forefront a decade later.

T.I. celebrated his hometown on another King standout, “Ride Wit Me,” which rolled over ATL's closing credits along with "What You Know." On this vivid tour through Atlanta, he name-checked neighborhoods and areas from his dope-boy origins (“Adamsville, Bowen Homes, Center Hill, to Zone 4”) with enthusiasm while also nodding to the ways age had mellowed him (“A couple years ago, I’da probably cut your throat”). Elsewhere, a simonized T.I.’s charisma shone on “Why You Wanna," forever summery thanks to its Crystal Waters sample. This was the suave complement to “What You Know,” an indecent proposal delivered with smooth audacity — the perfect balance of T.I. and T.I.P.

By the end of 2006, T.I. was doing songs with Justin Timberlake; he crossed over beyond hip-hop, and hasn’t looked back much since. Today, King resonates. It is as crisp and matter-of-fact as it was a decade ago, but it framed a moment T.I. can never recapture: the equilibrium between T.I. and T.I.P., a moment of perfection that birthed an imperfect legend.