Images by F. Scott Schafer

Echo Recording Studios is not an easy place to find. The unmarked building is lodged in a cluster of industrial structures on a ragged stretch of Southwest Atlanta lined with vacant houses, hair salons and meandering junkies. Before entering, guests wait in front of a surveillance camera, until a chain-link fence wound with razor wire slides open. The yellow Ferrari, silver Porsche and stretch limousine parked in the protected courtyard are early clues that this is not an ordinary warehouse. The entrance to the actual studio is via another secure doorway, this one protected by a large cage of thick metal bars. And deep within this prisonlike tangle of steel and wire is Clifford “T.I.” Harris, a free man.

Seated on a swivel chair, beneath a collection of closed-circuit monitors, on a warm evening, T.I. is under observation too. The small mixing room is packed with a camera crew, a VJ with wholesome R&B-singer looks, an engineer and assorted label personnel. Dressed casually but crisply—in dark denim jeans, an army-style button-up, a Red Sox fitted and Air Jordan sneakers—the 29-year-old rapper is illuminated by a halo of camera lights that glint off the chunky watch wrapped around his wrist. With recently recorded songs blaring from the speakers, T.I. mouths the lyrics, his fingers dancing in midair, his wrist flicking to punctuate snare hits. There’s a Jersey Shore–bound anthem plucked from the same peapod as 2008’s Rihanna-led “Live Your Life” single (complete with boisterous “ayes!” and all). There’s a poppy love song that the VJ breathlessly proclaims to be his favorite. And then there’s another track, a mean one, that T.I. penned while incarcerated in federal prison last year. Here, he growls about grabbing a knife to “leave a nigga drippin’ like a sippy cup.” The smile plastered on the VJ’s face turns waxen. “That one’s more aggressive,” T.I. says of the song. “Prison kind of shook my mind up a bit. It woke something up in my mind that was gone.”

After completing the last three months of his yearlong jail sentence at an Atlanta halfway house—a punishment stemming from federal weapons charges—T.I. has come home. Things are different, and not just because he no longer shares a room with five cell mates. The terrain upon which he built his empire—six albums, a closet stuffed with RIAA-certified gold and platinum plaques, his Grand Hustle Records label, big endorsement deals, millions of dollars in the bank—has shifted. T.I.’s vacated position as ATL’s most-celebrated dope boy is crowded with candidates like Gucci Mane, Jeezy, hell, even Waka Flocka Flame. The Billboard pop charts T.I. dominated with smash singles from his last album, 2008’s double-platinum Paper Trail, have become a playpen for babies such as Drake and B.o.B (an artist on T.I.’s Grand Hustle Records no less). Still, with his seventh album, King Uncaged, due late this summer, Tip’s not ready to cede his crown. “The term ‘King of the South’ did not exist before me,” says T.I. between sips from a Heineken bottle. “The term cannot be passed along unless I choose to pass it along.”

With a small frame, a head slightly too large for his body, and intense features, T.I. doesn’t look like a grizzled rap veteran who’s spent the last decade battling for primacy beneath the Mason-Dixon Line. But he has aged. While the youthful version of T.I. charged out of Cobb County jail in 2004 with sneering defiance, after serving time for violating probation, the contemporary model is far more subdued. To be sure, a mature, civic-minded T.I. can still sell records. Paper Trail, his sixth effort that included several singles with inspirational and reflective themes, was responsible for his most-notable moments of commercial success to date. But the LP was also cleansed of the gunplay, drug dealing and bristling menace that characterized so much of his earlier music. The duality expressed on T.I.’s 2007 split-personality album, T.I. Vs T.I.P., seemed questionable to some critics then, but he contains multitudes. There’s the public facade (entertainer, executive, faithful fiancé on the straight and narrow), and then there’s the other T.I. (a reckless thug who bought a stack of machine guns on the day of the 2007 BET Hip-Hop Awards). Only he knows where one ends and the other begins—or if they both still exist.