In February, members of Vinyl Me, Please Rap & Hip Hop will receive the first-ever reissue of T.I.’s King, on split black and white vinyl. You can sign up to receive it here.
Below, our staff writer reflects on when the album first came out and how T.I. became a superstar.
In 2006, right around the same time we watched Rashad snatch New New’s chain off her neck in ATL, the world as we knew it was already under siege by the man they called Clifford Harris, or T.I., or Tip, or Trouble Man (cuz he’s always in trouble, man). A hustler’s hustler gone street executive, Tip’s impending reign as the King of the South finally arrived on the wing of a double-fisted blockbuster: where the rap-centered films of the decade before framed their soundtracks as self-contained cultural lifeblood all their own — Above the Rim, Boyz N the Hood and Juice immediately come to mind — a simple pivot from Tip made for one of the sneakiest innovations of the time. Rather than focus his efforts on curating an ATL soundtrack, his fourth album King arrived as a standalone piece, moonlighting as a companion to the film that existed outside the self-contained universe. King and ATL dropped the same week in March 2006; the latter debuted at No. 3 at the box office, the former hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and went gold in the first week. Thematically, both pieces dwelled in the dualities of the sprawling city some call Black Hollywood: exorbitant wealth and ghastly poverty, legal and illegal money, faking as hard as one can in the never-ending pursuit of the real. But only in the film do we watch Big Boi at his most menacing, set to kill a teenager over some really petty quantity of work in retrospect. “But you know this grown man bidness, tho, don’tcha?”
But one wouldn’t have to watch the ceiling sweat onto the rink floor at Cascade to be front row for Tip’s coronation: In the January before the drop, “What You Know” already hit No. 1 at rap radio and had the nation swooning for the impenetrable arrogance and unfailing extravagance that only T.I. could conjure up. (Many clown Mr. Harris for his continuing legacy of verbosity, but the context only bolsters the intensity of his impact.) In what would soon become a Grammy winner, “What You Know” distills T.I. at his absolute best, narrating the spoils of his victories and the persistence of his suffering in the same swift bark raining down upon his enemies. He exudes confidence, every verse pierced by adlibs layered thick with jubilance, then cockiness, then what-in-the-gotdamn-FUCK-you-tahmbout-shawty? The refrain remains rhetorical (“What you know about that?”) even as it’s bookended by a half-answer (“I know all about that!”). And you don’t have to come from neither ’jects nor ’pahtments, or “be a dope boy to have money,” lest Tip remind us like Rashad told Ant in the basement. I was 12: I wasn’t, and I didn’t. But as the synth stabbed the sub, and Tip made us cite coke prices in camouflage, there wasn’t a kid in America that winter without an anthem on their tongue to match that energy for anyone who knew nothing of your home.
“‘King’ remains a top candidate for Holy Text in the Bible of Zone 1: It’s a star-studded monstrosity of sonic exuberance.”
But as already stated: Tip Harris could craft a single like clockwork. And as he staked his claim toward the King of the South with an array of hits from his prior studio works, he’d yet to drop an album that scored the hits while breaching the mainstream and proving his staying power in a longform effort. After running into every album-delaying obstacle possible — the inevitable leak, sentencing from old charges, being saved-by-the-bell with probation only to violate the probation many more times — the final cut of King elevated T.I. and his Bankhead tales to a definition unseen before it. King remains a top candidate for Holy Text in the Bible of Zone 1: It’s a star-studded monstrosity of sonic exuberance, assembling the likes of Mannie Fresh, DJ Toomp, Khao and Keith Mack to play the most formidable accomplices to whichever palette Tip aims to tackle. It’s gripping at all times, gentle when called for, and even the weaker records come off salvageable from the merits of Tip tapping into every strength in the toolkit. There’s far less stumbling to balance the ratio of gangsta:gentlemen, and he pays homage to his Southern DNA by calling upon the likes of UGK and BG, not to mention his contemporaries Young Jeezy and Young Dro.
While suffering from the bulk of mainstream rap albums of the time, King remains a statement of elongated eloquence from a firsthand survivor and sole proprietor of the hustle. Tip’s not here to convince anyone of his greatness; merely to extend another invitation, no matter how daunting the circumstances. Grandiose remains an understatement, yet not a single moment proved delusional: Somewhere on the other side of Bankhead Highway, T.I. was poised to become a superstar, fully fitting into his name.