T-Pain: Giving Us Something We Can Feel
Might as well get right to it. Yes, T-Pain can sing. He always could sing. He is, in my opinion, a very good singer. I would even encourage you to consider T-Pain an excellent singer. Your reasons for thinking he might not be an excellent singer, however, would not necessarily be unreasonable.
Some context: born and raised in Tallahassee, Florida, R&B/hip-hop rapper-singer-producer-writer T-Pain (born Faheem Rashad Najm) emerged at the tail end of 2005 as an enormously in-demand hitmaker with the success of guitar-driven finger-snapper "I'm 'n Luv (Wit a Stripper)." Urban crossover chart-stormers like 2007's "Buy You a Drank (Shawty Snappin')" came soon after, as did an endless string of high-adrenaline cameo vocals on tracks like Kanye West's "Good Life" and Chris Brown's "Kiss Kiss." During T-Pain's golden period of chart ubiquity — he contributed to five Top 10 Billboard Hot 100 singles of 2007 alone — he deliberately over-processed his vocals using Auto-Tune pitch correction software to manufacture an artifactual sci-fi effect. A trademark T-Pain vocal is one where he sounds soulful but tinny and machine-made, like George Lucas' C-3PO warbling his heart out at a karaoke bar.
T-Pain's computer-glitchy, digitally-rendered singing was hardly novel: after Peter Frampton, Roger Troutman made astonishing use of talkbox technology in the '80s, and artists ranging from Cher to Aerosmith to Daft Punk had dabbled in vocorder-esque cyborg pop by the early 2000s. T-Pain claims to have Auto-Tuned his croon because he wanted to differentiate himself ("I have a pretty weird voice. So I've been told"). But his audacious use of the technology triggered a sea of copycats. Like the rush to own a Rubik's Cube in the '80s, chart-seekers from Lil Wayne to Jamie Foxx to Ron Browz (remember him?) jumped on the Auto-Tune bandwagon with no-shame aplomb. The sound of vocals that seemed as if they were processed through a Speak & Spell device — or a squealing 56K-modem in start-up-mode — brushfire-rippled across broadcast radio.
The tide turned quickly, though, as public antipathy to Auto-Tune bubbled: Death Cab for Cutie's 2009 anti-Auto-Tune campaign that year became a minor rallying point, and Jay Z's foaming-at-the-mouth "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)" became the musical anthem and apex of said hateration. As Auto-Tune's most visible 21st Century practitioner and its supposed vector (he even consulted with Kanye on his Auto-Tune-drenched 2008 masterpiece 808s and Heartbreak), T-Pain became the scapegoat for a sonic practice that he popularized but didn't even get to invent.
T-Pain went into defensive mode, crafting tracks like "Ringleader" from his third studio album, 2008's Thr33 Ringz, in which our Auto-Tune enthusiast fights back against a legion of biters and haters. His reaction wasn't unjustified. In just a few years, his public image had gone from endearingly talented goofball to urban music's cornball class-clown. Witnessing the public disdain for his work, T-Pain allegedly went into a long depression from which he is just emerging.
We can now, in retrospect, look back on the mass derision over pitch correction software as an "Auto-Tune sucks" moral panic rooted in group anxieties and collective shame about inauthenticity in pop. It gathered its energy from fears about the perceived loss of analog tradition, as well as fears about the loss of traditional performance skills in talent-rich R&B. It also likely was shaded by an age-old anxiety that emergent musical technologies — such as the microphone, the drum machine, the synthesizer, and so on— will find a way to suck the soul out of music itself. Though opinions continue to vary widely, no such thing has happened yet.
To be fair, Auto-Tune was not the only culprit behind T-Pain's foreshortened mainstream career; image played a role as well. Early on, T-Pain emerged as an uncanny fusion of various R&B/hip hop predecessors: R. Kelly's raunchy polymath, Gerald Levert's smooth loverman, Lil Jon's energy-drink buckwildman, Tone Loc's wisecracking smart-ass, Cee-Lo's whimsical philosopher, Devin the Dude's blunted oddball and Shock G from Digital Underground's get-the-party-started buffoon. T-Pain's trademark look — top hat, sunglasses, frosted dreadlocks and shiny grills — suggested that he'd just come from an all-Jamaican cast of a Scott Joplin ragtime musical. It was easy to peg T-Pain as a trickster figure, dangerously flirting with neo-minstrelsy and flippant anti-intellectualism. (I remember hearing him once encourage kids to drop out of school). Was he no more than a walking stereotype? Especially given his penchant for inauthenticity in vocal processing, could we really take T-Pain seriously?
We can now look back at T-Pain's energetic mix of clever humor, irreverent abandon and charming sprightliness as one visible index of a groundswell of surging cultural poptimism that helped underwrite the renewed mass "hope" that resulted in the 2008 Obama presidency. (For better or worse, Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" and Beyoncé's "Single Ladies," among other songs, were also indexes of that surging, visually-aided poptimism. And DJ Khaled's motivational 2010 hit "All I Do is Win," co-featuring T-Pain, may have been a high point of good feeling produced in the relative aftermath of the election).
As the national mood started to shift and sour in the years that followed the 2008 economic crash, aspects of mainstream R&B eventually became increasingly dour, and morphed into introspective, moody and confessional sounds defined by post-backpack Kanye, late-night-confessional Drake and melancholic crooners like The Weeknd and Frank Ocean. Even by 2011, there was much less space in the culture for an apparently shamelessly cartoonish figure who didn't seem to take himself seriously. T-Pain reluctantly receded: his fourth studio album Revolver went no higher than #28 on the charts.
What a shame that anti-Auto-Tune sentiment has more or less endured (at very least it's seen in many circles as a joke), if only because it's meant that T-Pain's enormous skills as a producer, songwriter, arranger and performer have gone under-recognized.
While critics saw his use of Auto-Tune as a vocal crutch, I've always thought of it more as a sonic condiment, a kind of hot sauce that allowed him to sprinkle his tracks with generative tone colors. Take a listen to those sardine-packed, doo-wop harmonies on the musically-rich "Freeze." Or the catchy, yearning four-note hook of "Buy U a Drank." It became 2007's highest selling mastertone, given its piercing, high-pitched sonority. (Few artists sold as many ringtones/mastertones as T-Pain in his classic period, and for good reason). In spite of, or maybe because of, the digital processing of his vocals, I have a fondness for T-Pain's sonorous tenor. I appreciate his grab bag of solid melismatic runs. He's no Luther, but he's hardly a slouch either.
T-Pain's techno-feelingful soul may have been a musical analogue to our oughties obsession with haptic communications technologies like the smartphone and the tablet, as well as our increasing interest in post-production technologies like Photoshop and image filters. Why present the un-retouched real if the highly processed version of the real is so much more exciting to consume? With the benefit of hindsight, I think T-Pain may have been giving us something we could feel — a new way of thinking about texture and tactility in the context of digital technologies.
Now that we have some distance from the oughties, it's not hard to see that there were three main camps of urban music producers in that decacde. First, there were mainstays who more or less racked up hits throughout the decade: Jermaine Dupri, Timbaland, The Neptunes, will.i.am, Ne-Yo, Kanye, R. Kelly, etc. Then there were producers whose studio innovations mostly and roughly made an impact in the first half of the decade: Lil Jon, Scott Storch, Outkast, Rich Harrison. And then you had producers who made their mark predominantly in (and beyond) the second half of the decade: Polow Da Don, Jim Jonsin, Stargate, Bryan Michael Cox and Ryan Tedder.
Clearly, T-Pain as producer belongs to the second half of the 2000s — he drew on the post-crunk, post-bling, post-9/11 landscape to craft his unique and colorful version of the street scene. I can remember hearing his songs for the first time in an Atlanta nightclub in 2007, and not being particularly fond of the sparseness of the beats. I've since learned to re-hear T-Pain. What I love about his work now is its deliberate minimalism — the way his tracks breathe (through the use of strategic pauses and stops) and the way they engage unusual sonic and textural colors. Designed as an amalgam of several then-popular snap tracks, "Buy U a Drank" remains a stunning mix of filtered samples, synthesizer effects, loud-ass finger snaps, stuttering 808 beats and last-trimester pregnant pauses. "I'm 'n Luv (Wit a Stripper)" is equally spare: it's little more than a morse code beat, acoustic guitar, panned vocals, artificial claps and tinny video game effects. My favorite T-Pain production, "Chopped N Skrewed," reproduces the Quiet Storm chord progressions from Janet Jackson's "I Get So Lonely," and welds them to hopscotching beats, glitched-out vocals, Rhodes-like synth drooling and a series of campy, comic serial narratives about love-gone-wrong. It's a masterclass in production, writing and arrangement.
I also love the way T-Pain managed to render an immersive lifeworld through lyrics alone. Listening to his work, you're thrown into a universe of raunchy strip clubs, even raunchier sex ("Yo Stomach"), an endless parade of shawties, proud shout-outs to branded products like Oakley shades, Grey Cadillacs, Minicoops, Apple Bottom jeans and free-flowing Patron, to say nothing of T-Pain's parade of farcical alter-egos like Teddy Penderazdoun and Teddy Verseti. It's also a startling (and possibly troubling) universe in which semi-desperate men look to start committed relationships in stripclubs, romantically pursuing female bartenders and poledancers.
What makes T-Pain's ability to produce this virtual world even more startling is that he must be a great fiction-writer: born and raised Muslim, he's been married to his Christian wife Amber since 2003 (he's admitted to cheating on her, and he also was sued for unpaid child support for a baby he allegedly had outside of wedlock); together, they have three children. Far from menacing or reckless, T-Pain actually comes off as an endearing "aw, shucks" romantic on tracks like "I'm Sprung" and "Bartender."
T-Pain's work is also just as contemplative and introspective as it is extroverted. 2006's "Going Through a Lot," from his debut Rappa Turnt Sanga, mines themes of personal stress and psychological burden; it deserves comparison with songs on Gnarls Barkley's St. Elsewehere, also released the same year. On his 2007 sophomore release Epiphany, he sings about HIV on "Suicide" and he comically delves into rage on "Church." And at a time in which music was becoming increasingly globalized (think Barbados' Rihanna, Norway's Stargate), T-Pain's late oughties hits were defined by an alternative GPS impulse in that they lyrically focused on local, regional or extremely site-specific environments: finding love in the southern strip club, finding love in the recording studio ("Studio Luv) or combing through the vicissitudes of early life in Florida ("Ridge Road.")
Quiet as it's kept, T-Pain's work directly or indirectly inspired an entire pop landscape from Kanye, to Tricky and The-Dream, to Cash Money, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Chief Keef, Future, Fetty Wap, Bryson Tiller and so many others. In a moment where Adele's blockbuster success clearly demonstrates that late oughties' Auto-Tune didn't manage to kill off the demand for powerhouse vocals, can we finally admit that T-Pain's artistry deserves to be considered much more than just a guilty pleasure? Let's buy him a drink.
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