Written by Live Nation Staff • Photography by Newspix/Getty Images • May 25, 2016
Hip-hop has always rewarded youth. In a genre where the brightest stars tend to burn out the fastest, and most rappers struggle to sustain a string of two or three solid albums—let alone create a body of work that shows growth without straying from their central ethos—T.I. stands as an exception to the rule. Over the course of almost two decades, the Atlanta rapper has released nine albums and a steady stream of mixtapes, and progressed from a hot-headed dope boy to something of an elder statesman. As tracks like "New National Anthem" and "About My Issue" prove—along with his recent Da' Nic EP—Tip has managed to retain the nimble flow and intensity that made him a star, while expanding on the street-level sociopolitics that distinguished his early work.
With his musical legacy intact, T.I.'s turned his attention on the next generation in recent years, providing mentorship to a wave of young rappers raised on records like Trap Muzik, King, and Urban Legend, and throwing his muscle behind various non-profit endeavors. Most recently, he's partnered with TIDAL and CrowdRise for the TIP for Education Challenge, an online contest for youth education fundraising campaigns. Those that raise the most money individually will be in the running for a matching grant, funded by the rapper in conjunction with TIDAL. "Rappers always have these initiatives that we push on whomever," he says, referencing his peers who have tried to help their communities from the top-down. "We wanted to see what other people were passionate about and try to support them instead."
In conversation, T.I. is a unique character. He's a charming guy, prone to casually dropping SAT words in his molasses-thick Georgia accent. He sounds less like an iconic rapper and more like a genteel economics professor at Emory, who views the TIP for Education Challenge as a way to encourage kids to become community-minded self-starters from a young age. "We want to inspire kids to think as entrepreneurs," he says. The way he sees it, care in one's community can lead to a desire to create a business that enriches the people around you. "A lot of times we think we have to be living above a certain means to be active in the community, but I think it starts with being passionate about something. Once you're passionate about something, no matter what your means might be, you can create a way to use that passion." He pointed to the Swag Shop, an Atlanta barbershop owned by fellow rapper Killer Mike that has become a local hub for cross-generational conversation.
These same types of multi-generational conversations populate Bankroll Mafia's eponymous debut album, which dropped in April of this year. The product of an Atlanta supergroup consisting of T.I. and upcoming rappers like Young Thug, Shad da God, and London Jae—Tip refers to them as "a coalition of stand-up guys"—Bankroll finds T.I. playing the OG while proving he can still be one of the most vital and exciting rappers working. On album opener "Hyenas" he raps circles around artists half his age, taunting, "I set the world on fire, where your match at?" On "No Color," he advocates putting an end to gang violence. Another highlight is "Bankrolls on Deck," which features T.I. directing the track and trading bars with Young Thug, in whom he has found a close collaborator. Tip says he likes Thug because of "his connection with the universe—he has an ability to galvanize people and move them."
Though he could certainly rest on his laurels, basking in his achievements and good works, T.I. is still as hungry as ever. He's putting the final touches on his tenth album Dime Piece, and he plays a prominent role in the History Channel's revival of Roots, which debuts this Memorial Day. T.I. views his ability to diversify and create his own lane as a reflection of the pioneering spirit he's trying to inspire in those still coming up. "I want to show kids they don't always need to think they have to go and get a job for someone. That's cool, but I think as generations progress there should be more entrepreneurs in the coming generation than in the one that preceded it."