On the heels of a social media back and forth between T.I. and 50 Cent about who would win in a Verzuz battle—probably a more even matchup than either of them wants to admit; neither has made much music worth listening to in the past decade—T.I. went on Big Boy’s L.A.-based radio show and proclaimed, in a nutshell, that when speaking of his career, he belongs in the top tier of iconic rappers. He named Jay-Z, Kanye and Lil Wayne, though really he said folks should ask them where he belongs which served two purposes: 1) he’s saying to ask the folks others would consider greats; and 2) he’s also claiming that they’re greats so their opinions should matter because presumably, they’d put him on their same level. It also helps that those are the three people on the song “Swagga Like Us.” Mayhaps that’s who T.I. feels like were his peers in success at the time.
This begs the question, of course, that folks who argue about such things might ponder: as stellar as his career is, just where does T.I.’s career belong, and more importantly, does it belong in the top tier? I’m pretty sure that the knee-jerk reaction is to say, “no, it doesn’t belong in the top tier.” I am also inclined to say no. But is that right? Let’s investigate.
In order to have this discussion, we have to set the parameters for what makes a top-tier career. Also, because writing the piece that truly digs into this would take about 5,000 words and discussions about people like LL Cool J and Snoop and Queen Latifah and because you aren’t about to read all that I’m going to limit it to just the four rappers in question: are all three that he named top-tier (yes)? And if so, does T.I. belong with them (eh...maybe?).
So what keeps them at the top? What constitutes a great career? For one, longevity: who has been able to make a sustained living and put out music that was consumed. Also, resonance: does their music still hit the charts, as well as hearts and minds and not just your cousin’s Spotify playlist that he swears is full of that hot shit? While we pretend that charts and accolades don’t matter, they impact (at least somewhat) the ability to have a long career doing it on somebody else’s dime, which is where most people do it. Third, accolades: less important—like the number of inquiries on your credit report—but if you have none, it’s hard to put you at the top? And lastly, how have they spun that music career into other shit that was also successful.
I think Jay and Kanye are indisputable here. We don’t even really need to dig in. Political leanings and idiosyncrasies aside, Kanye stays winning outside of music, and he’s won so many times at music it’s not even fair. And Jay-Z is the gold standard. I think Lil Wayne is arguable, but probably not worth the argument if that makes sense. He checks off every box musically (shit, he even hit #1 on the Billboard charts this year), moonlights on ESPN on occasion and still manages to piss everybody off with stupid statements and then follow them up with less stupid statements that he follows up with more stupid statements. He is, basically, a pop culture personality.
So if Jay and Kanye are indisputable here, and Wayne is arguable but not really worth the argument, where does that put T.I.? Does he belong up there with the 2 and a possible? Let’s see.
Depending on who you ask, T.I. either has three classic albums (Urban Legend, Trap Muzik and King) or one classic (King) and two regional classics (Urban Legend, Trap Muzik) that set the standard for Atlanta and rearranged the lead. “Be Easy” still goes so hard in the paint. Outside of those three albums, he has a solid contingent of good-to-great albums that chart and many with singles that make significant noise nationally. Plus he had the song with Young Thug, “About The Money,” a few years ago that was banoodles. Point is, T.I. checks off many boxes musically. He’s got longevity (his first album dropped in 2001), he’s got accolades aplenty (including 3 Grammys, even though we don’t care about those, right?), he’s a noted and respected wordsmith and has managed to turn this music career into a lucrative non-music career. AKOO clothing is a bit of a wild card here, I have never seen anybody but T.I. wear it, but I also never saw anybody wear Trukfit. This isn’t my fault, I don’t live around white people. But he’s got a family show on VH1, which surprisingly hasn’t entirely overshadowed his music career. He’s also taken a turn towards activism which is a plus. On paper, T.I. seems like he might belong in that top tier.
So why do I feel like he’s just not there? Well, probably because I don’t feel like T.I. is such a part of the pop culture discussion that he’s outpaced his music. At this point, while Jay and Kanye got famous because of their music, they have become almost more relevant and present as people than because of their music. Conversations with them will always include discussions about music, but you can talk about a million other things. T.I. is still mostly a musician who uses his platform because he’s a famous rapper. Be clear, I think T.I. is an outstanding rapper. He’s probably one of the better rappers to ever have done it; that’s a hill I’m willing to die on. He had the biggest song of 2006 and as an ATLien, is probably more in line with the vast majority of who the city is musically than most others. Thing is, as I think through it, it seems more and more like Lil Wayne, though probably more of a pop-cultural figure (in some sense, not necessarily in the positive way) than T.I., is probably more on the same level with T.I. then he is Jay and Kanye, who reside on different planets, basically.
So, no, T.I.—while still a stellar artist who has had a phenomenal, enviable career—is not really on the same level as Jay-Z or Kanye. Arguably he’s on the same level as Lil Wayne, which now I think is probably a tier below Jay and Kanye. That’s still some fine company, placing him in the company of stars and legends (along with any number of other artists not named here that might belong in the convo).