One thing to like about Clifford "T.I." Harris Jr.'s truthful intelligence is the fact that the straight-outta–West Atlanta MC chose XXL, not Entertainment Weekly, as the place to compare himself (in an interview) to Jennifer Lopez and Barbra Streisand. Anyone who's heard T.I.'s music or seen his videos may wonder where the hell that comparison comes from. This weekend will provide the answer — by the end of it, he hopes to have the number one movie (with the Chris Robinson–directed drama ATL) and album (with King) in the country.
Ensconced in a Palace Hotel boardroom, the man whose first, prefame album was titled I'm Serious is just that, whether discussing the ways self-made Southern trailblazers such as the Geto Boys set a business example for him; exactly how UGK, NWA, and Luther Campbell made it easier to speak freely in his radio hits; or describing his and David Banner's Katrina-relief drives. "Everyone was talking about whether the Red Cross and FEMA were doing what they were supposed to do," he says, regarding Heal the Hood and his radio telethon efforts. "We filled up 18-wheelers and dropped off clothes, nonperishable food, diapers, and water."
Juggling cell phones — "I'm actually talking about developing a script this second," he says — T.I. does crack a smile when I tell him Hollywood has been slow to recognize his star charisma. Until recently, his biggest hit, "U Don't Know Me" (from 2004's Urban Legend), might as well have been directed at the studios. But the breakthrough success of Hustle and Flow has changed that quickly. T.I.'s label, Grand Hustle, released the soundtrack featuring Three 6 Mafia's Oscar-winning song, so it's far from a stretch to imagine T.I. and Terrence Howard exchanging music and acting tips.
Now both ATL and King's swaggering leadoff single, "What You Know," are primed to increase T.I.'s fan base. "Those are huge shoes to fill, definitely, but I ain't scared," he admits — with apologies to Bonecrusher? — when asked what he thinks about a Pharrell quote essentially labeling him the Jay-Z of the South. "I appreciate the compliment. I think people should be more concerned about how he [Jay-Z] feels about it. If he don't have a problem with it, I definitely don't." That said, the serious man with the number one plan allows himself a rare laugh. (Johnny Ray Huston)
Opens Fri/31 in Bay Area theaters.
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