ATLANTA — Spending most of the last two years behind bars usually disqualifies someone from being labeled a role model.
But T.I. — back in the limelight after his latest release from confinement — insists that he's still the voice to help shape the youth for good, perhaps even more so after his well-documented struggles.
"I understand if you have your reservations of my history or my criminal record. But my question to you is, 'Who do you have that has a clean record, a clean image, never did drug, never toted a gun? Who else do you have that can speak to these kids and they'll listen to them? If not me, who?'" he said during a recent interview
"I was actually making progress. I was doing good. I was touching lives and making a difference. "
T.I. is hoping to pick up where he left off, both with his community service and his career. He was released from a halfway house last month following an 11-month stint in a prison in Arkansas. He landed there after he was caught with drugs in California, just a few months after almost a year of incarceration for trying to buy automatic weapons and silencers.
Civil rights leader Andrew Young, who has been a mentor to T.I., said despite the rapper's rap sheet, he has the potential to positively influence this hip-hop driven generation in a similar way that Martin Luther King Jr. did during the civil rights movement.
"He's always to trying to keep peace," Young said of T.I. "He does not cause trouble. He's been a victim of trouble. He's done some stupid things like buying guns. ... But that's the challenge of life. How do you live a smart and creative life without getting suckered?"
Staying out of trouble may be the biggest challenge for T.I. He was on his way to a halfway house in late August when federal officials, upset T.I. traveled to the halfway house with a manager and VH1 TV producer for his upcoming show "Family Hustle," put him back in prison, accusing him of violating prison rules by discussing business deals during the 375-mile journey to Atlanta. Two weeks later, he was sent to a halfway house.
Then, two days after his halfway house release at one of several "Welcome Home" parties celebrating his new freedom, a heated argument broke out between Diddy and local radio host Kenny Burns, apparently because Burns was drinking a vodka that wasn't the hip-hop mogul's Ciroc. It seemed as if things might get physical when T.I. entered the fray and urged calm; the incident was captured on video and widely played on the Web.
"I was like, 'Hey, whoa, I'm just getting home,'" said the 31-year-old T.I., who is the married father of six. "I can't get into that. This might be bad for me. He (Diddy) understood that."
Before the incident, Young had warned T.I. to stay out of the spotlight and avoid situations that could land him back in trouble.
"He's very concerned. In his words, he was like, 'Just keep a low profile, just lay low,'" T.I. recalled, as he smiled, then chuckled. "I appreciate that, but I don't know how to lay low. I really don't. I'm trying."
Well, not quite: The Grammy-winning rapper has wasted no time stepping up his profile since his release: He joined Taylor Swift in a surprise duet at her Atlanta show, appeared on stage at his stepdaughter's concert, performed at the BET Hip-Hop Awards, and has been promoting his first novel with David Ritz, called "Power & Beauty: A Love Story Of Life On The Streets," which is out this week.
"Having to sit still and remaining stagnant when you're not used to it, I got motivated," T.I., whose real name is Clifford Harris Jr., said of his time away. "This is what I have to do, period. I'm eager to get started as soon as possible."
T.I. co-wrote "Power & Beauty" with Ritz, who helped with memoirs by Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye. The novel is a fictional tale about two childhood friends torn apart by dangerous dealings on the streets of Atlanta.
Through his novel, T.I. said he wants to motivate youths to read more, the same way Sista Souljah inspired him through her best-selling book "The Coldest Winter Ever."
"I want to give them something to be excited about, be entertained and have fun," he said. "That will make them go out and find other books that they can read because they enjoyed it so much."
T.I. is also still taping for his TV show, "Family Hustle," which is expected to air on VH1 in early December. He said the show will track him and how he conducts his household after his return home. It will also include his stepdaughter, a member of the pop trio OMG Girlz; a son that want to rap; his two sons who play football; and another son who is looking to write a children's book.
"Everybody is trying to find their niche, and I'm the example," he said. "I'm the godfather if you will. If you was in the Corleone family and wanted to be a mobster, you had to see the boss. So everyone comes to me about what they want to do."
T.I. is also working on his clothing line, Akoo, and helping on the script for a sequel to "Takers," the urban crime drama that debuted at No. 1 while he was behind bars. He also wants to breathe new life into his rap career: The rapper says he fills a void in hip-hop that no one else can, but his last album "No Mercy," released when he was in prison, put up subpar numbers compared to his prior releases and didn't produce any No. 1 hits.
Still, there are those who believe the so-called King of the South can reign once again.
"He's definitely more mature," DJ Trauma said. "I think he's more conservative than before with more focus. Musically, he built himself from the ground up, and knows what the people want. ... What he brings to the game is needed."
Follow Jonathan Landrum Jr. on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/mrlandrum31