T.I. leans back into the cushions of a well-worn sofa in the doorless green room of Atlanta’s Artisan PictureWorks studio. One foot touches the floor, the other rests high up on the sofa cushion, giving him the posture of a patient settling in for a long session at his therapist’s office. But really, he’s a man on the losing side of a war with time. On September 1, T.I. and his wife, Tameka “Tiny” Cottle, were pulled over for an illegal U-turn while he was in L.A. promoting the film Takers. The officer claimed he smelled marijuana, and an ensuing search turned up four ecstasy pills. Now T.I.’s in a familiar position. One week from today, he will report to jail to begin serving an 11-month bid for violating probation.
Over the next few days, Clifford “Tip” Harris will scramble to shoot 11 months’ worth of music videos, which will be used to promote his upcoming album, No Mercy, while he does time at Forrest City prison in Arkansas. His strategy is “to be as forward-thinking as possible to make sure we have more than enough content to make a realistic attempt at, like, replacing my presence,” he says, chuckling at the absurdity of it all. “Of course there is never no real replacement.”
The album’s original title, King Uncaged, referred to Tip’s release from his 366-day prison sentence for trying to buy illegal guns back in 2007. In an unprecedented “experiment,” U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell, Jr. allowed him to do 1,000 hours of community service to shave almost four years off his sentence. “I’d like to thank God for blessing me with a second chance in life and success,” he said at the hearing in March of 2008.
But this time around, there are no do-overs. “I think Mr. Harris had had about the limit of second chances,” Judge Pannell said at his October 15 hearing. And T.I. confessed that he had a drug problem: “I need help,” he told the court, “for me, my mother, my kids. I need the court to give me mercy.” While the D.A. in Los Angeles dropped the case, reportedly because of shoddy police work, Tip still must serve out his sentence for violating probation.
Meanwhile, much of the goodwill he’s earned has been erased with one traffic stop. “You’ve been given a bunch of different chances,” Ne-Yo told the Associated Press, “and now is the time to really go, you know, I get it.”
The whole ordeal has taken a toll on Tip’s mental state. Right now, his only comfort is focusing on his music career. When asked how long he’ll be working tonight on his video-shooting marathon, he sighs and shakes his head. “I don’t know, however long it takes, I guess.” For T.I. the days are too long, and yet not long enough.
VIBE: What are you hoping to accomplish with No Mercy?
T.I.: It’s supposed to tell how I feel right now.
How did you go about picking songs?
Most of those songs I made aren’t on this album. They were made from a different point in my life. It gotta speak to the moment. And the records that don’t necessarily speak to the moment are put there for the purpose of not being overwhelmed by the moment. It’s too dark.
What is this “moment”?
I don’t know what more I can say besides saying it is a dark, humbling and painful moment.
I’ve heard you mention how the good that you’ve done is easily forgotten. Do you feel that you’ve been treated unfairly?