T.I.’s Urban Legend is probably a classic.
Depending on who you ask.
The holy grail of a rapper’s career, the undeniably classic album, has eluded many a superstar, many a talented MC and all sorts of random hopefuls with illusions of grandeur. T.I. may be on that list as well, again, depending on who you ask. For some, the mileage varies, but the closest he has come is undoubtedly his third LP, Urban Legend, which celebrates its 12th anniversary today.
While it may have been his third album, it served as an introduction of Clifford Harris to many — it represented his first foray into the mainstream and set the stage for his career, one that found him appearing alongside pop megastars to boost their No. 1 records, notching his own chart-toppers, starring in blockbuster films, playing roles on primetime television, and almost anything in between.
The album’s conception came at a peculiar moment in Tip’s career. He had just been released from jail and spent a summer vanquishing Lil Flip, a laughable achievement over a decade later, but an admirable one at the time. During the squabble, Scarface backed his claim as “King of the South” and T.I. was suddenly an anointed star waiting to prove he could carry the crown he’d claimed. He released his first Top 10 single in the Jay Z-sampling “Bring ‘Em Out,” a diversion from his previous thumping trap sound, but a welcomed one as Tip was clearly flexing his versatility. Over all the blaring chirps and chimes you’d come to expect from a Swizz Beats production he dismissed the jail stint by noting “I got some time, but that ain’t shit ’cause I get better with time.”
The anticipation for the album was only ramped up when he tacked on a snippet of “U Don’t Know Me” at the end of the “Bring ‘Em Out” video, revealing that the street side of Tip hadn’t dissipated, in fact it may have been stronger than ever. That initial brush with mainstream success only increased the already-fervent, insatiable hunger from fans for what was to come and when Urban Legend finally arrived, it delivered on the promise of that track and T.I.’s potential beforehand.
Managing expectations and meeting potential is a dangerous game. With Jay Z retired, 50 Cent focusing on his crew, Eminem fresh off a flop and Kanye West existing on an entirely separate plane, there was room for someone to swoop in and claim the crown of not just the South, but rap in general. With Urban Legend, The Rubberband Man threw his hat in the race, opening the album by sampling Run-D.M.C.’s the “King Of Rock” on, of course, “Tha King.” While the track is mostly him boasting about his status as the South’s –and more specifically Atlanta’s — foremost MC, he did foretell his plans for domination outside of the Georgia border.
“I’m king of the South now, but it’s 50 states
I’m gonna spread out and I’ll eliminate who in the way
I’m 24 today, give ’til I’m 28
I’ll be ruler of all that I survey and not just in the States”
If first impressions are everything, T.I. put his best foot forward to kick of the album full of varied subject matter and production. There were blaring trumpets on “A.S.A.P.” reminiscent of Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” Mannie Fresh’s signature, booming bass and “tinkle” on “The Greatest,” a vibrant and warbling The Neptunes production for “Freak Though” with a trademark, falsetto hook from Pharrell to boot.
For content, Tip bounced around, offering the full spectrum of his psyche and identity. One moment, his aspirations as an MC are highlighted, then he’s crooning to his girl, his side chick, his “b*tch” and then all three at once, or boasting about his construction business just as proudly as his exploits as “the killer whales and great whites” of the trap and “selling yay since I was Bow Wow’s age.” Between all of that he’s tossing cash at strippers with Nelly on “Get Loose” and asking God for forgiveness for it all on “Praying For Help.”
While he spent his time chasing commercial success on I’m Serious, then flexing his street cred on Trap Muzik, Urban Legend presented Clifford Harris as a nuanced, multifaceted man, with regrets, anger, ambition, compassion and probably most importantly, the ability to truly reflect and understand what he was before, what he currently stood as in the moment and what he could be in the future, not just for himself, but for his children, family and community.
Was it a classic? Maybe. But, what was inarguable is that Urban Legend was T.I.’s finest work yet. He spent 17 tracks and over an hour gathering all the separate elements of his identity, and stuffing them into an enjoyable and diverse series of sounds.
There’s an old wrestling idiom that asserts a performer doesn’t truly breakthrough until he finds the character that is basically himself with the volume on 10. Legends like The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, CM Punk and Daniel Bryan all stand as proof of the theory — none of them truly broke through the so-called glass ceiling until they started acting overblown and became embellished versions of themselves on television weekly. Essentially, the message is that being a character works in quite a different way than the ordinary you does. Everybody plays a character in some sense, but only the character that is closest to the true identity of the performer works. T.I. found that medium on Urban legend.Urban Legend was that moment for T.I.; he quit pandering to others and presented the most essential version of himself to his audience. In doing so, he went platinum.
On Urban Legend you come to truly realize what the impetus of T.I., Tip and Clifford Harris is. It took three albumsm but T.I. had finally presented a full version of himself to the world. At one point on “Why You Mad At Me,” he laughs off a potential clash with a foe by quipping “man you lucky I ain’t bucking like I used to do fools,” before pleading “Yes I’m a felon, why was that in question? What about all these records I’m selling?” In three bars, T.I. presents the gamut of Urban Legend, Clifford Harris and, maybe chillingly so, the future of his career as well.
There would be more foes, more court cases, more nearly classic albums — depending on who you ask — and more introspection in the years that follow for T.I. Still, on Urban Legend, despite releasing two solid albums before it, Tip finally had the launching pad for his career that he’d so desperately sought before. Despite what he may have said on the album’s second single, we finally did know T.I., and in a time where rap gravely needed a new superstar, the stage was set for him to become that. And because of all of that, by the time he was 28, the prophecy he foresaw had become reality.