T.I. is the biggest selling hip-hop artist in America. Few know it, but many have made that happen. Known for his gifted flow, and various aliases, the Atlanta-born Clifford Joseph Harris Jr. found himself becoming a major player in the community with last year’s King, which not only sold more albums in the U.S. than any other rapper (1.7 million, in case you’re wondering). The fact that it also won him a Grammy, for his blazing "What You Know” single (he won another for his collaboration on Justin Timberlake’s "My Love” single), not to mention awards from Billboard, BET, as well as others, helped set up his fifth and most ambitious album. Featuring guest spots by Jay-Z, Eminem, Nelly and Wyclef, T.I. vs. T.I.P. finds the man splitting himself down the middle, to portray his two personalities: T.I., the accomplished business persona, and T.I.P., his dangerous thugging self. He’s called it an opera, not just an album, and T.I. vs. T.I.P. certainly plays out like theatre. Spread across three acts, the tension ebbs and flows, but sets up for the ultimate showdown between the two sides, kinda like DeNiro and Pacino in Heat. Like many in his game, T.I. has had ups and downs. He’s served time in a Georgia prison and had repeated violent incidences with fans and fellow rappers recently. But he has also built quite the portfolio as a multi-tasking entrepreneur; there’s Grand Hustle, which works as both his record label and film production company, the King of Oneself clothing label, as well as an acting career (he starred in last year’s ATL, and will star with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in the fall’s American Gangster) and property development and construction companies. Over a plate of BBQ-drenched ribs and a piece of pie, T.I. was gracious enough to answer some questions on a hectic promotional trip to Toronto.

What led you to write a concept album about your two personalities?
Life experiences. The things that I was going through from last year to this year inspired enough material to create an entire album.

Do you find it difficult to separate those two sides?
Nah. I mean, my first mind would be T.I.P. But when I put thought to a situation, when I apply reasoning to it, calm myself down and rationalise that would be T.I.

!!!You have other aliases. Would you explore those other sides of you in a similar style?
I mean, I believe those have already been explored. "Rubberband Man” was more like Trap Muzik, "King” was more like the last album, King, so I feel that this is the only part that hasn’t been addressed, I believe.

Were you influenced by any other concept albums while you were writing this? Maybe Prince Paul’s Prince of Thieves or any of Eminem’s albums, Tupac’s Makaveli?
Maybe those last two a little. [Interrupts to tell his assistant he has the wrong dessert.] I definitely listen just out of being a fan of music, but it wasn’t like I had a comparison with mine to theirs. Once I had thought to do an album like this, I had already conceptualised in my head how to bring it all together and make sense. The way they made theirs come together, it wouldn’t work with my formula.

You separate the album into three different acts: T.I., T.I.P. and then a showdown. Did you plan out each act before you wrote it? Or did it come together during the writing process?
No, I thought about it first. And then once I could visualise what I wanted to do I could start.

You brought in Eminem and Jay-Z, who a lot of people compare you to. Did it mean a lot to have those two heavyweights working on the album with you?
Sure, it was an extreme, absolute pleasure.

The album debuted once again at the top of the Billboard charts. And it was interesting to see a song like "Help is Coming” included, because it’s essentially a memo to your label ensuring that you’re gonna deliver the goods. Seeing as the industry’s hurting these days, were you feeling any pressure on your shoulders to "deliver the goods”?
They always worry. That’s their job, to worry. Once they put tens of millions of dollars behind something, y’know, they have no choice but to worry. And it’s my job to tell them not to worry. [Sports a big grin.]

The album seemed on its way to beat a leak before release date but it did leak a week in advance. Does that sort of thing concern you?
Nah, you can’t stop the album from leaking that far in advance. There’s nothing you can do. Now if it leaks four, five weeks in advance, then you got yourself a problem.

That’s usually when album’s leak these days, it seems…
Yeah, I don’t usually have that problem.

This is the first album without DJ Toomp. What made you look elsewhere for beat makers?
Me and Toomp did work together for this album, but… During an album, usually me and Toomp would get together three or four times, but this time we just got together that one time. And when we got together that one time, and I don’t think we found anything that was comparable to what went on the album.

So what exactly do you look for in beats then?
Beats talk to me, they tell me what to say. Or how to approach them. Once I’m done with it then I can examine it as a whole.

The beats on "Hurt,” which were provided by Danja, stood out the most for me on the album. He’s been coming up under Timbaland’s wing, producing records for people like Justin Timberlake and the Game. What attracted you to his beats?
Danja’s probably one of the hottest new up and coming producers. Y’know, he’s got a lot of hits that people don’t know he got, know what I’m saying? And me being knowledgeable of that fact, I took advantage of it.

You’re often noted for your ability to write a good pop hook. I though King especially displayed this. Is that something you work on?
Who said my hooks are pop hooks?!? [Laughs.]

I don’t mean that as an insult…
Nah, nah, I didn’t take it as a compliment. But I just wondered, because most people say the exact opposite. Like think about it: "Big Shit Poppin’” – is that a pop hook?

Well, I think the chorus definitely is. It works…
It works, but does that make it pop? You gotta look at other pop songs like, a semi-crossover hip-hop pop song is going down, like Yung Joc. Those aren’t comparable. That’s not to say that Yung Joc is a pop artist, but that song sounds like it catered to radio than any of mine did. Even "What You Know” – think to yourself… [Interrupted by a South African film crew.] Even "What You Know,” that wasn’t really instantaneous; it took a while, it had to grow on people. Usually my records, people don’t gravitate to them right away. They just become infectious.

So, you’re quite the businessman, with your music, your label, acting, producing films, property, construction, clothing. How do you keep all of that up in a 24-hour day?
Well, I have an outstanding team of people that work around me. They fill positions as needed, know what I’m saying, and make sure I focus on what I need to focus on right now. And they line up what I need to focus on next. As soon as I finish with this, I can go right into that, and so on and so forth.

How do you prioritise all of those different jobs?
It’s usually depending on the nature of the cheque. [Laughs.] If we got a cheque for this then it’s a high priority. If there’s a cheque on the way for this, then it’s the next priority. And if there’s no cheque for this, then it’s the least priority. That’s how that works.<

As far as acting goes, you got some strong reviews for ATL last year. And now you have American Gangster coming up with Denzel Washington. What can you tell me about your role in that film?
First of all, the movie’s about the life of a guy named Frank Lucas, who was Bumpy Johnson’s apprentice, and assumed Bumpy’s position in the New York drug trade after Bumpy died. Instead of using the local gangsters to run his crew, he called his brothers, cousins and nephews up from the Carolinas to start running it with him. I play his nephew, the guy they wanted to keep out of the family business because I was a pitcher – they wanted me to play for the Yankees. I had other intentions though. I won’t give it away though. It’s out November 2.

What can you tell me about your clothing line, King of Oneself? When does that launch?
Between October and February. We have our spring and fall lines designed, and we’re just doing the finishing touches with the manufacturers and working out deals with distributors, setting up accounts here and there.

So tell me, are you still actively ghost writing for other rappers?
Let me ask you a question: Would you ask David Copperfield to reveal his magic tricks?

I guess that answers my question then! Okay, I’ll move on.

You’ve recently defended the use of the "n-word” in hip-hop, while icons like Eric B. and Kurtis Blow are campaigning to bury it, literally. I’m curious as to what that word means to you as an artist and a human?
It’s a term used both friendly and maliciously depending on the situation and the scenario. And I don’t think no one person should tell a black person whether or not they can use the n-word. That’s left up to the discretion of the user. It’s like if you go up to a Jewish person and say, "You can’t say Jew no more.” Y’know, how you gonna tell me? I’m Jewish! So, you can’t really say or do that. You can’t tell people what to say in ways that they describe themselves or their culture or their lifestyle, y’know, their walk of life. You can say, "Don’t call me that!” And, I won’t if you ask me not to. Know what I’m saying.

Do you think that’s what they’re trying to get across?
If that’s what they’re trying to accomplish, then fine, I will respect that. I wouldn’t call anyone a name that they wouldn’t want to be called.

You’ve been known for having public beefs with other rappers. Do you see consider that as healthy competition, just something that happens in hip-hop or -
It’s not needed, nah.

Would you say it’s just an act of desperation for some artists then?
Absolutely. That’s why I try to stay away from it. People keep putting me in that box, I don’t know why. I don’t need any of that help to gain attention. I don’t do anything for the sole purpose of publicity. If I have a problem with somebody then I address them; I don’t do it on a record. I do man to man, behind closed doors. If it just so happens to spill outside, that’s not my fault. You know, you never seen me calling nobody a name at no show or award show. Just besides that one time, I ain’t ever got on a record and said anybody’s name, you know what I’m saying? I don’t do that. It’s not necessary. I think that’s what people do, who don’t intend on doing nothing else. If you intend on doing anything else, then all of this talking is just gonna prevent you from doing that. Go do what you gonna do. Talk about it later.

Speaking of attention you don’t need, the media really picks up on the negative sides of things, like the incident at the ESPYs and that you’ve done some time. [He laughs.] But I did a little research and discovered that you’re actually quite a nice guy, who in his spare time gives back to his community through Hurricane Katrina, Boys & Girls Club and Make-A-Wish. Do you find the media often overlooks the charitable work you’ve done and focuses more on giving you a "bad boy” image?
They talk about what people put out there to talk about. If that’s what people connect me to mostly, then they have no choice other than to talk about. I mean, my reputation precedes me. The things I’ve done they speak for me before I can even open my mouth. So what I’m trying to do is, I’m trying to doing other things that are more positive so they can speak for me as well. Obviously my positives haven’t caught up with my negatives as of yet, but I’m working on it.

Do you wish they’d focus more on your humanitarian side?
I think it could be focused on a little more. At least every time they speak about this they could speak about that.