By Simon Vozick-Levinson
December 07, 2010 at 09:08 PM EST

Image Credit: Arnold Turner/WireImage.comT.I. couldn’t have picked a worse time to be missing in action. The rapper-actor, 30, should be out hawking his long-delayed seventh album, No Mercy, which finally arrived in stores today. Instead he’s sitting in a federal prison cell in Arkansas, where he began an 11-month sentence on Nov. 1 after violating probation. “We were gearing up to put an album out,” sighs Michael Kyser, head of urban music at Atlantic Records, T.I.’s label since 2003. “But we wanted him to help market and promote it. That would have been nice.”

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Even before heading back to jail, T.I. was having a tough couple of years. He spent more than half of 2009 behind bars for a 2008 weapons conviction, and none of the four singles he dropped after his release had much impact on the pop charts. But by the end of this summer, his career seemed to be rebounding. His Aug. 27 movie Takers did well, and he was working on a new album, which he had titled King Uncaged. “I can’t complain, man,” T.I. told EW in August. “Things are pretty good from where I stand.”

Just two days later, his comeback came crashing down when he and his wife, Tameka “Tiny” Cottle, were arrested in L.A. for alleged drug possession during a traffic stop. The charges were later dropped, but it was enough to violate his probation from the previous jail term — and disappoint many fans. “Some people were already pissed that he was in jail the first time,” says Vernon Kelson, music director at Baltimore’s 92Q radio. “Then for him to go back — some people have turned their back.” Atlantic also felt blindsided. “No one saw this coming,” says Kyser. “He stumbled, and we had to adjust.”…

To read the rest of this story, pick up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly this Friday, Dec. 10.

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More on the Music Mix:

T.I. blasts hypocrites and suggests he’s the next Tupac in “No Mercy” video

T.I. celebrates box office success with Takers