Clifford “T.I.” Harris is one of the greatest rappers of all time, the self-proclaimed King of the South. He’s also one of the rare MCs whose speaking voice isn’t a faint hint of the voice he raps with: he’s a thoughtful and loquacious guy whose vocabulary gets even more expansive when he’s not contained by a rhyme scheme. And it sometimes seems like he’s constantly holding forth with a continuous stream of thought as he moves from the vocal booth to reality shows to his podcast to film roles, an oratory that you just temporarily participate in when interviewing him for a half-hour.
The rapper, who turned 40 last month, just released his 11th album, The L.I.B.R.A., with an all-star roster of guests including Young Thug, Lil Baby, Benny the Butcher, and 21 Savage. But the father of six also worked with two of his sons on the album: the standout track “Family Connect” was produced by Messiah, 20, and features a verse by Domani, 19. The latest video from the album, “Hypno” featuring Rahky, was directed by Hype Williams, is out today, with a Juicy J beat that pays homage to the Notorious B.I.G. classic “Hypnotize”:
When I spoke to T.I. on the phone on Wednesday, he was on the move: first in a car and then walking, occasionally pausing to greet people he ran into. We spoke about the new album, life under COVID, and his quest to find the right opponent for a Verzuz song battle on Instagram. T.I. has been challenging 50 Cent for months, but earlier this week Busta Rhymes threw his hat in the ring. An hour after we spoke, T.I. went on Instagram live to explain why he’s reticent to battle Busta, and brought up my suggestion that he face Jeezy instead. By the end of the day, Jeezy had responded enthusiastically, and their Verzuz appears imminent.
SPIN: You don’t release as much music on mixtapes between albums as some of your contemporaries, and it’s been two years since your last album. So does that mean a lot of material gets left on the cutting room floor to make an album like The L.I.B.R.A.?
T.I.: I mean, for a lack of a better explanation, yeah. I guess so, I just kinda leave it on the cutting room floor. I think the process of consistently recording has a lot to do with it, daily recording. To give you an example, we was in the studio probably ‘til about 5:30 in the morning,  Savage, [Young] Thug, Gunna, Domani, a young lady by the name of Sonyae, just working, no plans to put anything on any project in particular. We was just in there, kicking shit, gambling, talking, working, recording. So whatever we recorded last night, I don’t know what it’s gonna be on, I don’t have any plans of necessarily putting an album out. And if Thug says he wanna put it on his project, so be it, and if Savage says he wants to put it on his project, so be it. We just work.
And you might get a call or e-mail months later that one of those people is putting one of those tracks out.
So for my project, that was taking place, things like that, nights like that, songs were being recorded, from the time I dropped my last project. So I always have records, I always have music. it’s just a matter of when are we going to put out an album, when do we have an entire project that we want to culminate 10 or 12 or 20 of these songs together and present it to the world? Once we decide we’re gonna put out an album, that’s when the overall arc of the story comes together. The music is always available.
There’s a lot of features on this album. Did a lot of those come from those kinds of nights in the studio with other artists, or from you finishing a song and then deciding it needed a verse from somebody?
I would have to say it was probably a 60-40 even split, probably 60% of it is songs I had done, thought about it, and said hey man, I call up one of my partners who happen to do music, and say “Hey man I think you should be on this.” For instance, the record with 21 Savage, “Thank God,” that song had already been recorded six-to-eight months ago. And I was playing my album for Savage, and that song came on, and he said “Yo, see, that’s the kind of record I wanna get on.” I said, “Well, shit, let’s do it.” That’s how that record came together, whereas “Ring” with Thug, I was just in there with him and we did our thing, a normal session. Records like “Respect the Code,” that’s a record that I had for a while, but I always heard [Rick] Ross on it, so I just finally ran into him, I got in touch with him, he came to the studio, he knocked it out. The one thing I can say, every feature, it was all me calling them and saying “You wanna do this?” and they went on and handled it. There was no going through labels or management or none of that kinda shit. The one that was consistent was it was all personal contact.
I really like “Put Some On It,” that’s one of the only solo songs and it stood out to me.
What about it?
I feel like you pick and choose different flows for different songs, and it didn’t sound like any flow I had heard you do before.
I’m a man of many styles, bruh, I try not to get stuck in one presentation of cadences, I try to just basically go from one extreme to the next. I could simplify it slow – [sings the hook of his 2003 single “24’s”] “money, hoes, cars and clothes” – I could do that, or I could get into the more complex kind of, almost spoken word-type conversational rhyme like on “Horizons.” I could go with the east coast hip hop shit like “Make Amends.” I don’t really have a style, I have a range of styles.
With most rappers, it’s obvious who their biggest influences are, but I was thinking that it’s not as clear with you. I was trying to think who would really be your predecessor, maybe Big Boi or something, but even he’s not too close.
Right, right. Big Boi, Andre, they are definitely my predecessors and my OGs in this shit, but coming up I looked up to everybody from Ice Cube to 2Pac to Jay-Z, B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, I was just a hip-hop head. I would listen to the conscious shit, Boogie Down Production, Nas, Brand Nubian, I would listen to that and I would appreciate it, but I had an affinity for gangsta shit like N.W.A., Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, that was like where I really really spent most of my time. So I feel like my style’s kind of a hybrid of those. And then of course with my southern foundation, it just comes off a little different. And I think being from the south, we have ways that we can kind of rap that I don’t think nobody else can do it. Like we can kind of twist four or five words in one word, like the record Rocko had, “UOENO.” So that freedom or flexibility, it just allowed me to take it so many different places and apply my skills in so many different ways.
I always liked the things that had kind of a 2Pac introspection, I think “Prayin’ For Help” is one of your best songs.
Man, thank you, yeah, I wrote that in jail. Now that you mentioned it, I think the fact that I don’t really have a style, I think that’s kinda why people don’t necessarily identify with one in particular way that I rap. You can think of let’s say Lil Wayne, you know when somebody’s tryin’ to sound like Lil Wayne. Although he’s a phenomenal MC, probably the greatest rapper alive as he claims, but you can hear, he has a particular style which makes him more identifiable. You can associate his style with him, whereas with me, I’m like an amoeba, that shit is all over the place, it can come from any angle, any time, it’s a lot less easy to pinpoint. So I think that has a lot to do with it. I believe that it adds to the timelessness of what T.I. is.
Yeah, it’s true it’s easier to hear if someone is influenced by Wayne or Jeezy or something. But it totally makes sense to me that you would have Lil Baby and 21 Savage on this album because if anyone in Atlanta currently has some piece of your style, I think those guys have some of that, the more calm, conversational delivery.
Right, right, right. I got a lot of respect for both of them. I can identify with how they carry it, what type of time they’re on, and just how they move, not just in their music, but what they represent as men, and how their reputation precedes them. And the other thing is, you know that they’re not just talking about a bunch of shit they never involved themselves in, they’re talking about what they know. The shit that they’re talking is the shit that they know.
I know you talked about wanting to do a Verzuz battle with 50 Cent, and it feels like that’s not going to happen at this point.
I don’t know, man, we’ll see. I have no idea. But I just heard yesterday that Busta wanted to do it. This would be cross-generational, I don’t know…I didn’t know that was what we were doing.
Yeah, we haven’t seen a lot of Verzuz battles where people from different eras go up against each other. Usually, it feels like we get artists who came out around the same time, and it kind of takes everybody back to a certain point in time, and he was out for 10 years before you.
Not even 10 years, I was listening to Busta, man, Leaders of the New School, “PTA,” bruh. It just feels like I’d be playing at a handicap. I’m thinking about it, I’m definitely thinking about it because it’s not my style to ever evade any adversity. But I’m just thinking, considering and thinking.
Would you do it against Jeezy?
Uh, yup! I mean I would. I’m not for any reason saying I would not. But he would have to call me out the way I called 50 out.
Had you worked with 9th Wonder before this album?
I haven’t. He was actually here working with my son Messiah on some of Messiah’s production. Messiah really really looks up to him as a producer, and when Messiah started producing, he kinda came to me and said “You know this guy?” and I said, “Yeah, that’s the homie, I know him.” “But you never worked with him?” Nah, now that you mentioned it, I haven’t. So I just kinda linked him with 9th, and they got together, 9th came down, him and Messiah hooked up and exchanged some of their techniques, they use the same machine. So while he was down, I said “You know we gotta do something, right?” I whipped that up right on the spot, he played “Horizons” for me and I said yeah that’s it, that to me sounds like a song I hadn’t really heard T.I. do before, but it still felt genuine, it felt effortless. We did another one, too, I didn’t finish. 9th is the kind of producer I would do an entire album with 9th, he dope.
When you get a beat like “Hypno” where it’s got the same sample as Biggie’s “Hypnotize,” do you get apprehension about sort of remaking a classic?
It’s definitely pressure. It’s definitely like, “Woah, we gotta make sure we don’t fuck this up.” But I trusted my skill set, I trusted my ability to create, my ability to put shit together in a way that will be respectable across the board. I’d rather hear me do it, and approach from a homage angle, than somebody who just did it because they just wanted the clout of doing this record.
So over the weekend, footage circulated on social media of your release party for the album, and a lot of people saw you in a crowded club without a mask, and were not happy about it.
That’s their business. I can’t help how happy people is about whatever. I live in Atlanta. In Atlanta, these are the rules, we abided by all the rules, we did whatever the regulations in the state and the city allowed us to do. We’re not gonna be in nobody’s face, I’m not breathin’ and coughin’. And I have 13 negative tests, going on 14, with all the places you’ve seen me, with all the flights I’ve taken, with all the marches and protests, I’ve done everything that they say is more susceptible to the virus, I’ve done all of it, and I have 14 negative tests. So I have a level of confidence that maybe you may not have, maybe I believe in my immune system a little bit more than you believe in yours. I am more interested in how to strengthen my immune system to defend me against COVID than I am trying to hide and keep from coming in contact with it.
It’s scary out there, I hope you continue to test negative. If they’re taking temperatures and everything at these events, that’s good.
I refuse to live in fear, I’d rather live in preparation. I feel like the virus is being politicized by both parties, where the fear of the American people, it’s a currency almost, they’re gambling to see how they can make more fearful.
But you know, the research has come out recently that 1 in every 1,000 Black Americans has died from COVID. Not out of 1,000 who are infected by 1 in every 1,000 Black people in America has died from it.
What I think we’re dealing with here is not just a virus. We’re dealing with preexisting conditions, the healthcare system, all that shit, and a large wealth gap to where people can’t really afford to pay for any extra added obligations like healthcare or insurance to where they can get themselves checked out on the regular. So instead of the rush for vaccination for COVID, why don’t we rush to give Americans essential healthcare, so we actually find out what’s going on with them? If you really want to answer the problem, you gotta hit healthcare.
Do you think you’ll do more group projects, with Bankroll Mafia or otherwise?
To be honest we were just talkin’ about doin’ another Bankroll Mafia project, me, [Young Thug], Shad da God, Peewee Roscoe, London Jae and Lil Duke.
I think it’s cool that you and Young Thug have had a real chemistry that I didn’t really expect before “About The Money,” I wouldn’t have seen you to as someone he’d end up working with a lot.
Man, to be honest with you, I feel like he’s a phenomenal talent, the things Thug do, only Thug can do. I think he’s an incredible asset to the city and to the game. And outside of that, I knew him before his greatness was known to the world. He’s about the shit he speaks, authenticity is key.