NEW YORK - Though he bills himself as the "King of the South," T.I. was just beginning to earn his royal coat of arms when a prison sentence threatened to knock him all the way down to serfdom last year.
Just as his popularity was surging off of "Rubber Band Man," the second infectious hit from his breakout album "Trap Muzik," he was locked in a jail in his native Atlanta for violating probation on a drug conviction and sentenced to three years behind bars.
But the rapper - known for his healthy dose of confidence - didn't panic. Instead, he used his lockdown as an opportunity to do some strategic career planning.
"It was just a little setback, a steppingstone, a life lesson... I wasn't discouraged," says T.I., recalling his incarceration as he stretched out at the offices of Atlantic Records, his record label.
"I was frustrated, aggravated, inconvenienced, upset perhaps, but I never thought like 'Oh, man, I blew it.' I knew the records were still going to sell, I was going to have people behind me," he says matter-of-factly.
"You think about whatever you going to do when you get out - in my case, I was writing music and just thinking of different ways to maximize on my opportunities... strategizing your takeover."
Now, T.I.'s takeover in the rap world is starting to take hold.
With his sentence converted to a work-release program last year, he eluded prison. His latest album, "Urban Legend," has become a hit with production work from hip-hop's top producers; it's helped to widen T.I.'s appeal, but not dilute his raw rhymes and street-wise swagger.
And that appeal has been boosted thanks to superhot cameos, (including on Destiny's Child's smash "Soldier") and his endorsement of Jay-Z's Reebok sneaker, the S. Carter.
"The thing in hip-hop is that we're looking for the next generation," says Elliott Wilson, the editor of the rap magazine XXL, which is making him their May cover boy. (Vibe gave him the honor earlier this year.)
"His brashness, his confidence, I think, at first turned off people, but now, I think he's shown he's worthy of praise," Wilson says. "Today's fans view him like a Jay-Z, a 50 Cent."
He certainly has a similar background that has become part of the gangsta folklore - or in T.I.'s case, urban legend.
The 24-year-old father of four, born Clifford Harris, grew up on the impoverished streets of Atlanta among a family he describes as hustlers. Though some were involved in criminal activity, T.I. says they just struggled to survive.
"When I say hustle I don't mean necessarily broke the law and sold drugs, but, I mean that they didn't know where their next check was coming from. They had to get their's day by day, and they got it, some more than others," he remembers.
By the time T.I. was a teenager, he hustled by selling crack. But he was also serious about starting a rap career, recording demos, traveling back and forth to New York in hopes of landing a record deal.
Whatever he did, it was not going to require a suit and tie.
"I was never going to plan on getting a job. That's not me. I don't want to. I don't have a passion for that," he says. "Like the hustlers, and everything, taking a chance, and creating your own empire, that's what moves and motivates me."
T.I. started making the first stab at an empire in 2001, with his major label debut on LaFace Records, "I'm Serious." But it didn't help him in his quest to become "King of The South" - it sold poorly, and soon afterward he negotiated his way off of the label and segued into a home at Atlantic Records while bolstering his name on the street with a flurry of mix-tape performances.
"Trap Muzik," his 2003 follow-up, made the impact that he so desperately sought, thanks to street-savvy tracks like "24's" and "Rubber Band Man." But much of that threatened to be eroded when warrants were issued for his arrest in 2004 on probation violations, and he landed in Fulton County Jail.
"In most ways, it kind of hurt him, because he was just starting to get some national attention," says Wilson.
It may have slowed his momentum, but it certainly didn't stop it.
Jay-Z courted him to endorse his sneaker; he had friends on the outside selling "Free T.I." shirts to make a few extra dollars; he even boldly made a video at the jail, which enraged many in law enforcement. (Inexplicably, he had gotten permission for the shoot.)
"It just so happens an escape took place while we were doing what we were doing. That's why it was such a big deal," T.I. says nonchalantly.
T.I. believes the time he did behind bars probably garnered him even more fans among his core audience - "(people) in the ghetto."
"They want to see you go through the same (stuff) that they go through so they can say he's one of us," says T.I. "To be one of us, you've got to go through that, and that's why I'm one of us. I've earned my stripes - I've worked up a storm, I've been here, when it was good, when it was bad, when it was rough, rain, sleet, snow, I was here."
After public beefs with Ludacris and Lil' Flip in recent months, he's squashed his feud with Ludacris and after much public jibing of Flip, now prefers to let that one die as well.
"If it's on my mind, I say it in my music," he says. "But I made a decision not to even speak on no more rappers on records. It's not my style. That creates the kind of attention that I don't want."
Instead, T.I.'s looking to elevate his stature in the rap world - and beyond. He's creating his own sneaker line, reading scripts for movies and is looking to promote his own group, P$C, comprised of his old running crew.
He's also trying to rebuild the community where he grew up - partnering with his uncle, also an ex-inmate, in a construction company that builds low-cost homes in the neighborhood.
He's already made an impact - and helped correct some of his past misdeeds in the process.
"I brought the same house that I used to sell crack out of. I brought it from the junkie," T.I. says. "He used to let me come in, sell crack out of his house. I brought his house from him, renovated it and put a family in it. It's the least I can do."
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