Q&A With Rapper T.I.

On the low, while the mainstream wasn't watching, 26-year-old Atlanta native “T.I.” (a.k.a. Clifford Harris) quietly and confidently stole the show from the more notable names in the rap game. His last album, “King,'' bowed only second to Jay Z's offering of “Kingdom Come” in sales and because of his steely good looks and no nonsense stance, Denzel Washington handpicked him to play a pivotal role in “American Gangster,'' the actor's next big film. But don't let Harris's innocent schoolboy profile fool you. In his latest album, “T.I. vs T.I.P.,'' the rapper boldly addresses what he considers to be the dual personalities that reside within him—and boy do they conflict. T.I. is the savvy businessman with major endorsements with car dealerships, a 2006 Grammy and two-picture deal with the film company New Line. On the other hand, “T.I.P.,” a nickname he acquired from his paternal great grandfather, is something of a hothead. At the ESPY awards pre-party in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, T.I.P. clearly got the upper hand and beat down a partygoer with a mic who'd thrown a cup at him. Just two weeks before, T.I.P. had another incident at a Hollywood hotel when he got involved in a fight with the manager of his rap rival Ludacris. But no matter which one of his personae wins, the rapper's fifth album debuted last week with nearly 500,000 in sales, which means both of his alter egos get bona fide love from the street. NEWSWEEK's Allison Samuels sat down with the rapper to discuss anger management, movie roles and who really is the king of rap in the South.

NEWSWEEK: So this is your fifth album, and it seems the raw anger that fuels a lot of rappers and then subsides once success comes—hasn't really hit you?
Nope. I'm still living life, and life can really be f------up no matter how much you have. I don't have to look far to see some s--t that hurts me or upsets me. I'm still the same person I was when I made my first album, so I got the same thoughts about things, and I'm just as pissed today about some s--t as I was then. I don't see that changing.

Since you brought up being “pissed"—you had some run-ins of late that have been in the news, particularly the one during the BET awards weekend with Ludacris's manager. I assume you regret those incidents since you apologize profusely when you got up to receive your BET awards.
Yeah, there's a time and place for things, and sometimes I can forget that. But I won't be disrespected, and that's the bottom line. I don't appreciate people talking about me behind my back or talking s--t about me while smiling in my face. That's why I don't have a lot of Hollywood types as friends. I don't handle that well, and I like to nip s--t in the bud when I see a problem. I'm not saying it's right, but that's how I handle things.

You and Ludacris are both from the South and both proclaim to be the kings of rap of the South. How important is that to you, and is that where that particular fight has its roots?
It's important that people buy my music and like it. It's important that my music does well and that people see how seriously I take my craft as a rapper, you know? I do want that type of respect, and I think anyone does, really. No one is in the game not to be the best or not to dominate. I always thought I'd be a rapper and be the best one out there. I had no plan B or C when I was coming up. So this had to work.

So we don't have a Tupac-Biggie thing going on here right with you and Ludacris?
Hell no. I wouldn't let nothing get that serious, and it's not that serious, believe me. Some things were said that I didn't appreciate, and I addressed it. It's simple—this is a great career and one I've wanted for years. I'm not going to mess it up like that. That's why I stay home most of the time, because I want to avoid that kind of drama at all times. I just come out when I have to.

Let's talk about your work with Denzel Washington in “American Gangster.'' What was it like to work with an actor of that caliber so soon in your career?
It's something I can't explain because Denzel really reached out to me, you know? He saw me in another film and liked me in that one. The first time we met, we just really just talked for a while and I could tell he really had listened to my music, because he knew the names of the songs. Then when I got the role in “American Gangster,'' he put me in more scenes than I was supposed to be in. I was getting more pages as the shoot went on, and so I felt good about that because it showed he was cool with my skills.

Did Denzel give you any advice?
He told me to “keep me simple.'' Which I do anyway, but it was cool to hear him say that was the way to do it right. I was never really nervous about it though, because I know that I'm made out of the same thing the next man is made of who can act, so I figured I could, too. You know, I've never doubted I could do whatever I wanted to, because at school I was the popular guy who did what he wanted—except sports. I didn't have the focus for that—too many girls to chase.

Were there any jitters with this album? “King” was a pretty big hit.
I don't worry about stuff like that. I do what I do, and hopefully people like it. I like my album—I like the music that I put on it, so I think my fans will like it. I feel like I know what they like and as long as I stay true to that, I don't have to worry about what the scan sales say or [what] critics say. I used to worry about the critics in the beginning. That was a big deal to me before with my first albums, but now, I don't give a damn. It is what is.