T.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 Dec. 7. 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.?
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.?
As did T.I. (born Clifford Harris Jr.), who decided to scrap King Uncaged and record 14 fresh tracks. He called the new set No Mercy. Atlantic was happy with the music, but they still had to figure out how to market it. Fortunately, recent history provided an instructive example: Lil Wayne, who put out a No. 1 album during his eight-month Rikers Island stint this year. ?Lil Wayne had the blueprint,? says Kyser. ?You almost felt like he was not gone [when he was locked up].? The rapper created that impression in part by shooting a series of music videos before going to jail. With his sentencing date swiftly approaching, T.I. did the same. By the time he reported back to prison on Nov. 1, he had six videos in the can (so far three have been released). T.I. also filmed a series of personal statements that will roll out over the next year. ?He?s owning up to his mistakes and taking responsibility,? says Kyser. ? ?I let you guys down, and I apologize. I?m human.? Stuff like that.? Those clips will complement his Dec. 10 episode of VH1 Storytellers, recorded before his latest arrest.
The other key to Wayne?s strategy was extensive online communication with fans. Here, too, T.I. is following suit. He has e-mail access in jail, so he will send short messages for Atlantic reps to post on his Twitter account, @Tip. Longer thoughts will appear on his official blog, where one recent post confessed he was ?sick and motherf—ing tired of going to jail.?
Of course, that still leaves one crucial thing that all the planning has been unable to deliver thus far: a hit. ?Get Back Up,? T.I.?s current single featuring Chris Brown, hasn?t made it past No. 70 on Billboard?s Hot 100. But Maurice ?Mo Better? Rivera, program director for Memphis? Hot 107.1, is confident T.I.?s career will survive no matter how No Mercy does in the short term. ?He?s important to rap,? says Rivera. ?You can forget about people forgetting about this guy.?