Sitting on the 15th floor of the Clift Hotel, Atlanta rapper T.I. is in good spirits on a gloomy San Francisco day as he discusses his latest album Trouble Man: Heavy is the Head, and rightfully so. After overcoming what seemed like insurmountable odds, he has a hit single with Lil Wayne from the new release, a successful TV show and a record label with a roster of budding new artists.

T.I. at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco. Photo by Matt Crawford.

It wasn’t long ago that T.I. was considered just another rapper who had it all and let it go to waste after a few wrong moves. After serving almost a year in federal prison on gun charges, he returned for a second 10-month bid less than a year later for a probation violation after he was pulled over on the Sunset Strip with a cup full of syrup and ecstasy pills in his pocket.

After his release last fall, T.I. went to work, recording more than 120 songs for consideration on the new album. On first listen, it won’t be surprising if he finds himself back at the top when Trouble Man hits stores on Dec. 18. The combination of radio-friendly tracks (cameos by Andre 3000, R. Kelly and Pink) and the trap anthems (“Trap Back Jumpin,” “G Season”) is the same recipe that helped elevate him as the undisputed “King of the South” early in his career.

We sat down with T.I. for an interview on his new project and the events that lead to the making of Trouble Man.

It has been awhile since you were in San Francisco. When’s the last time you were here?

I actually just came here this summer in July. We went to Napa Valley just for some kickback time. We did a bunch of kick back, cool out, no worries shit—hot air balloon rides, wine tasting and horseback riding.

Any time to relax on this trip?

No, I’m operating right now on two hours of sleep and I don’t plan to sleep anymore until I get back on the plane tonight.

And that’s because of Trouble Man. Let’s start with the album name, which borrows from the 1972 film and soundtrack by Marvin Gaye.

I’m a huge, huge fan and admirer of Mr. Gaye and his legacy. The title is just more appropriate to my circumstances, me always having some shit going on. It seemed to embody what this project would be about and it embodied what I’ve been going through throughout my career. We just shared something in common at the right time.

How does the music fit with your catalog to date?

It’s a perfect mixture of the familiar sounds from Trap Muzik and Urban Legend mixed with the more diversified, broader sounds of Paper Trail. I feel like it’s an equal balance.

The album cover has a cinematic quality to it, as well. How did you select that image?

We always try to make sure our visuals are as compelling as the music to make sure visually it’s as stimulating, even if you haven’t heard one record. Knowing what the music is and the inspiration—and the true to life events that took place to inspire it—we had a think tank with five or six cats with everybody shouting out the most outlandish and ambitions ideas possible.

With that particular idea, we wanted to take everything that could possibly get someone in trouble and have it form one abstract object with my face in there somehow. We wanted to make sure it was subtle and clean like Paper Trail. That has been our life mission ever since that album artwork, to top Paper Trail.

And that abstract object is you holding a gun.

Oh, is that what that was? (laughs) Ok, Yeah. What about it, now?

That’s the first time in your career, in eight albums, that you have held a gun for the cover artwork.

I feel like it’s creative expression. The gun symbolizes all the things that got me in trouble and the one most recent thing that has gotten me in trouble. It’s honest. I’m all about interpreting my art in an honest fashion. You have to be real and true to something—a certain thought in my mind or a certain feeling in my heart. Whether it’s received positive, negative or indifferent, it has to be true to something.

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