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Struggling to make sense of T.I.'s arrest

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Ti_lHaving interviewed T.I. twice this year, once by phone and once in-person, I know for afact that this highly talented artist is also an intelligent, thoughtful individual. So his arrest in Atlanta this weekend on an array of serious gun charges really disturbed me. According to the federal complaint against him (link leads to a PDF), T.I. allegedly tried to buy several unregistered machine guns and silencers; the feds also allegedly found a whole bunch of other weapons in his car and his home. As a convicted felon — he was imprisoned on drug charges almost 10 years ago, before his recording career began — T.I. should surely have known that Georgia law prohibited him from owning any of those firearms, even if they had been registered. It’s very important for us to remember that T.I. is innocent until proven guilty,and hopefully, this is all just some sort of misunderstanding, but things aren’t looking too goodright now. If the charges are true, how could someone so smart do something so foolish and self-destructive?

There are surely some who will use T.I.’s arrest as a way of excoriating his music. After all, they’ll say, didn’t he rap about toting guns all the time? I’m an inveterate defender of rap against its kneejerk mainstream foes, but even I can’t deny that these allegations make me less comfortable about the times when T.I.’s songs (like a lot of other American pop culture in many genres and media) seemed to glorify violence. Sure, it’s still just art, but I’d be lying if I said I could watch his (NSFW) video for current single “Hurt” without wincing now.

addCredit(“T.I.: Ben Rose/WireImage.com”)

There’s a sad irony here in the fact that T.I. just made an entire album about these very issues. This summer’s T.I. vs. T.I.P.— still one of the year’s best rap releases, for my money — was allabout how hard it was for him to control the scary, aggressive impulseswhich he personified as an alter ego called “Tip” or “T.I.P.” Thisspring, he said the album reflected an internal crisis he was facing inreal life: Even as he became the world-class star known as T.I., partof him still thought like a tough guy. “I’ve been Tip all my life,” hetold me. “Whereas T.I. is a character or a personality that had to beassumed in order for me to conduct business in an upstanding way.There’s no way I could have assumed the levels of success that I havenow being totally Tip.” Now that backstory feels like more than a cannypromotion strategy.

He also talked a lot about how he almost didn’t make that album.Last year, T.I. losthis best friend, Philant Johnson, to senseless gunviolence. Johnson was murdered right in front of him — an extremelytraumatic event, needless tosay, which T.I. said gave him crippling writer’s block and led him toquestion his purpose in life. “Phil died, and after that I didn’t wantto record at all,” he told me. “I didn’t want to do nothing.” Afterthat awful incident, he of all peopleshould have known about the risks involved with guns. If the federalcharges are true and he somehow thought that more weapons would keephim safe, he must be dealing with some very real and veryunderstandable pain. Given that we’re talking about alleged gunpossession and not, thankfully, an actual act of violence, maybe it’snot too late for him to get some help. It would be a real shame to losesuch an inspired musician to his own personal demons.