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T.I.: It's hard to be "king" 

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It's been an interesting year for hip-hop. Three 6 Mafia stunned America by becoming the first rap group to perform at the Academy Awards, and then again by actually walking away with the Oscar for Best Original Song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," from the Hustle and Flow soundtrack.

T.I., a native of Bankhead, GA, and self-dubbed "King of the South," knows something about the hustle and flow of pop culture. He was co-executive producer of the H&F soundtrack, and has also appeared on Fox's The O.C. and in a GQ fashion spread. Now, the rapper (known to his mother as Clifford Harris) is slated for a role in ATL, his feature film debut with famed video director Chris Robinson. It's loosely based on the early experiences of music producer Dallas Austin and TLC's Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins.

We talked during T.I.'s recent stop in Charlotte to promote ATL and his new CD, King, which drops March 28. In his ATL role, T.I. said, he plays "a young man put in a lot of grown-man situations. It's a good guy." His character, Rashad, tries to keep his little brother from falling victim to the streets after their parents die.

T.I.'s own ride to fame began when a LaFace Records executive took him to the Source Awards in 1999. There, the gifted young lyricist decided he would navigate his future away from being a "dope boy" in the ghetto -- or as he calls it, "the trap" -- to the legitimate lifestyle of a "b-boy." He released his debut, I'm Serious, on LaFace/Arista in 2001. Three years later, he'd jumped to his own Atlantic-affliliated label Grand Hustle, and put out the breakthrough Trap Muzik, inspired by events in his life. His follow-up was the platinum-selling Urban Legend, which included the Grammy-nominated single "U Don't Know Me."

Of course, with every rap star who makes it big comes the mandatory clothing line. T.I. is no exception. He hopes to enter moguldom, a la Diddy, Jay-Z and Atl's own Jermaine Dupree, with business ties to music, construction, a clothing line and his own sneaker.

But for now, T.I. has King to keep him busy. The album furthers his claim to his now-infamous moniker. T.I.'s arrogant swagger and lyrical storytelling has invited comparisons to another actor/rapper, the late Tupac Shakur. But T.I. shuns comparisons to anyone, choosing to direct attention to his own talents. "Ya label got got/Cuz you are not hot/I got the top spot/And it will not stop," he raps in "What You Know," the CD's first single.

"This album is a solidification of why I call myself the 'King of the South,' why I'm known as that," he said. Touting just the right mix of street anthems and club hits, King achieves what T.I. wants to carry out -- "represent[ing] the South in a way that nobody has represented it before."

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