Until he re-emerged in 2003, not too many people knew who T.I. was. He released his debut album in 2001, but the album flopped. At the time, he was signed to Arista Records, but they soon removed him from their roster. With no label deal, T.I. returned to the streets and back to hustling. Along the way, he also appeared on various mixtapes in hopes of being signed by a major label. His big break came in 2003, when he was featured on BoneCrusher’s “Neva Scared.”
The song became a hit during the summer of 2003 and T.I. landed a deal with Atlantic Records, but he also negotiated a deal that allowed him to have his own label under Atlantic. To this day, he credits the creation of Grand Hustle Records as the smartest move that he has ever made. Once he got everything in place, T.I. began recording his second album, Trap Muzik. The album caught on with fans after the release of “Rubberband Man.”
It would be on his breakthrough album, Trap Muzik, which T.I. would begin referring to himself as the King of the South. But, taking a closer look a hip hop in 2003 proves that this may not have been the case. While T.I. was notable, he was far from the most popular rapper from the South in 2003. At that time, Ludacris still had a stranglehold on the Southern game. When T.I. was just getting started good, Luda was promoting Chicken N Beer, his crowning achievement.
The following year, T.I. began feuding with Ludacris and Houston rapper, Lil’ Flip. Flip often stated that T.I. was not even the King of Atlanta, let alone the King of the South. He said that both titles belonged to Ludacris. In 2004, both Ludacris and Lil’ Flip had higher charting singles and higher-selling albums. Again, T.I. was notable, but his numbers were unlike the numbers of a king. Still, the region was dominated by other artists.
Because of his prison sentence, people are saying that T.I. lost his crown of King of the South, but being fair, he probably never held the title. In 2006, he set records with the release of King, but he was overshadowed by Chamillionaire. His album, The Sound of Revenge, was released in late 2005 and it would end up selling in 2006. The second single, “Ridin’,” would become the anthem of 2006, while T.I. posted a big hit with “What U Know” and “Why U Wanna.”
The following year, T.I. was still relevant, while Chamillionaire’s wave blew over, but T.I. was still overshadowed by Yung Joc. His sophomore album, Hustlenomics did not sell as much as T.I.’s 2007 release, T.I. vs. T.I.P., but his singles generated more buzz than T.I.’s music. In 2008, he emerged as a hitmaker and his album, Paper Trail sold well. Many people view that album as the defining album of T.I.’s career, but it was overshadowed by Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III.
A lot of people have jumped on the T.I. bandwagon and agree with him being King of the South, but each year there is always someone doing better than him. Lyrically, the only Southern rapper that can compete is Lil Wayne, but as far as popularity goes (which does count), T.I. loses every year. Still, he is a force in the game and is in the top five, regardless of geographic region. But, even at his peak, T.I. was still number two to Lil Wayne.
Perhaps, T.I. was never King of the South; maybe he was a prince that may one day inherit the throne. With a new album coming later this year, he may finally earn that title.