It's been hard to avoid the music of rapper T.I. over the last year, with his No. 1 hits "Whatever You Like" and "Live Your Life" blaring from nightclubs, iPod headphones and car stereos everywhere.
But starting Tuesday night on MTV, the hip-hop star will try out a new role as a sort of celebrity guardian angel who tries to scare kids straight.
In the reality series "T.I.'s Road to Redemption," young people who'd usually be described as "at-risk" -- troubled backgrounds, limited prospects, bad attitude -- get a surprise visit from the rapper, who favors a carrot-and-stick approach to behavior modification.
In the premiere, an Atlanta street hustler with vague aspirations of becoming an actor gets a crash course in "Romeo and Juliet." But to drive home the point, T.I. also guides him to the basement of a local funeral home, where an attendant has laid out the corpse of another young hood whose luck ran in the opposite direction.
"I think my reputation kind of speaks for itself," T.I., who goes by the nickname Tip and whose real name is Clifford Joseph Harris Jr., said in Hollywood last week.
Referring to the eight kids chosen for the show, he said, "They know I'm not speaking just from hearsay; I speak from experience. I've been through what they're going through, I've done all the things they're doing. And if they see I can make it to where I am, there surely is a possibility for them to make it to where they want to be."
If that all sounds a bit noble for TV, let alone for a rap star, your skepticism is excused. Trying to make the world a better place is not something the so-called celebreality TV trend is often accused of; it would be hard to make such an accusation with a straight face when contemplating titles such as "The Simple Life" with Paris Hilton and the truly twisted dating show "Flavor of Love" with the incomparable Flavor Flav.
But the producers behind "Road to Redemption" -- who, incidentally, were also behind "Flavor of Love" -- say the series is part of a genuine self-reinvention T.I. undertook after a major brush with the law threatened not just his career but his freedom.
In 2007, the rapper was arrested and charged with federal crimes including illegal possession of machine guns and silencers. As a previously convicted felon -- his rap sheet includes a series of busts for drug offenses and probation violations -- T.I. at one point faced up to 30 years in prison.
His tribulations formed the basis of "Paper Trail," the current album that has brought him his greatest mainstream success. In many ways, the TV show is intended as an extension of the album's theme of spiritual rebirth (most clearly heard in his current hit "Dead and Gone" with Justin Timberlake).
T.I. was under house arrest in Atlanta when the producers came to visit him to discuss "Road to Redemption." MTV's original idea, the rapper recalled, was "putting cameras in T.I.'s house and watching him while he can't leave. I wasn't with that. I didn't think that was significant enough."
The creative direction evolved after Michael Hirschorn, a former VH1 programmer who left last year to form the production company Ish Entertainment, came aboard with his producing partner, Stella Stolper.
"We were talking about doing something that was really kind of a 'Scared Straight!' show for kids," Hirschorn said, referring to the 1978 documentary about at-risk kids (personal disclosure: from 2000-01, Hirschorn was my boss at an entertainment-news website). T.I. "was going to go surprise these kids, scare the bejesus out of them and set them straight. And then after Stella and I went to visit him down in Atlanta, I was kind of struck by (the fact that) he's a deep guy. There's more to him than you'd think.
"So I think that in our heads the show started seeming a lot bigger and more psychologically interesting. What do you do if you're at the top of the world but your past keeps dragging you down?"
In fact, that chapter of his story isn't finished even for T.I. himself, which is what gives the show a perhaps unintentional layer of tension. The rapper is still under the eye of federal authorities, at least until his formal sentencing next month.
He is finishing 1,000 hours of court-ordered community service (the show was not part of the deal, the producers say). The interview for this article was conducted in the star's trailer, along with the federal agent assigned to accompany him at all times.
Hirschorn said he understands the skepticism -- mega-millionaire hip-hop musician hasn't really changed his bad-boy ways but has merely figured out another canny way to cash in on them.
"He doesn't need this really," Hirschorn countered. "He doesn't need the money. He doesn't need the headache. He's really the top artist in the country right now.
"If you think of the traditional rapper pose of being too cool for school, he's not doing that at all. He's really putting himself out there emotionally. There were people who told him not to do the show because it would undermine his edge, his credibility, to do what really is a feel-good show about helping kids."
T.I., who during the interview was as cagey and reserved as his raps are personal and revealing, took a characteristically more direct view of things.
Speaking of the kids he's trying to save, he declared, "If I can't get through to them, nobody can."