SXSW: T.I. Is Much More Entertaining When He’s Not in Prison

How many second chances has T.I. had now? And that’s not only counting his recent prolific stretch of jail sentences. You can go at least as far back as 2004 for T.I. legal trouble: Just as “Rubber Band Man” was making him a star, he found himself in prison on a parole violation. As he said once, “I’m certainly sick and motherfucking tired of going to jail, juvie, prison, the pen, correctional facilities or whatever else you want to call it. I’d have been better off doing a 5-10 year bid one time than going in time and time again for days, weeks and months for the last 15 years of my life.” Thanks to this peculiar proclivity of his, we’ve just gotten used to T.I. always being on some stage of the comeback narrative. Last night, this latest comeback run brought him down to Austin for The Warner Sound at SXSW.

T.I.’s managed to stay visible since prison with extracurriculars like his VH1 reality show and his, um, novel, but he hasn’t found himself back on the radio just yet. That might be on purpose. Soon after getting out the pen, he promised a return to his older, gnarlier style. (“I know how to do it. I got that formula. It’s like making sweet Kool-Aid. Easy.”) Since, he dropped the mixtape Fuck Da City Up and, surprisingly enough, lived up to his promise. Look: your friends, your coworkers, random people you call to try to spark insightful conversations about contemporary rap music — they might not believe you when you tell them T.I.’s new mixtape is good. I had a hard time believing T.I.’s new mixtape is good myself. But it is good! As the title track attests, Tip does still have the formula for his old lean street rap: On this new stuff, you can feel the sneer again. He’s locked in right now.

“I ain’t never been here,” T.I. let us know last night. “They been telling me a lot of shit about it.” B.o.B., who’s signed to T.I.’s Grand Hustle Records, had just gotten done warming up the crowd with his particularly anodyne brand of radio rap. He had dancers in sparkly bras, and backup singers oohing and ahhing, sometimes to words originally sung by Rivers Cuomo. (Later, when he’d return to the stage after T.I., he’d have a guitar too. B.o.B.’s DJ would ask “Ya’ll wanna see B.o.B. play the guitar?” and I would silently judge the hell out of anyone who screamed in the affirmative). For all of the energy being expended, he was delivering a pleasant, dull vibe.

And then T.I. came out to the sharp snare cracks of “Rubber Band Man,” and life immediately got better. He wasn’t so much hopping around the stage as he was gliding around it, leering, fuming, and rolling off a reservoir of pent-up aggression. The massive hits came fast — “Whatever You Like,” “What You Know” — and T.I. kept up. “Ya’ll ain’t give me no muthafuckin’ dancers,” he shouted out, but what would be the point? He was taking over by himself. Otherwise, he didn’t talk much. He mentioned that “this is first time me and B.o.B. did a whole show together, so consider yourself lucky and privileged.” He talked about recording some tracks while on “house arrest for a certain charge” and then not hearing them again until he got out. He also plugged his upcoming album, Trouble Man.

It was a limited-run appearance, designed to remind everyone that when T.I.’s on, he’s really on. It’s been a while; it was nice to see again. A gentleman to the left of me certainly agreed. Presumably in appreciation of the rejuvenated T.I., the guy had lit up a blunt, then grabbed giant piles of cash out of his pockets. As the smoke swirled around him, and while rocking to the beat, he held the money triumphantly over his head. It was certainly an appropriate response.

Filed Under: Sxsw, T.I., We Went there

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Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

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