When T-Pain appeared on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts last week, he wore a nervous, queasy grin — the expression of a pudgy kid entering a gym class full of jocks and softly saying, “Here we go.” It’s possible he’s walked into every room in his life looking like this (here he is, on the red carpet, in 2005). He scanned the audience furtively. “This is weird as hell for me,” he chuckled. The room chuckled back, politely. Then he began singing “Buy U a Drank” a capella and the world was reminded of something: T-Pain is ferociously, outrageously talented.
For T-Pain, born Faheem Rasheed Najm, this basic fact — his talent and worthiness — is in continual need of reassertion. Despite the fact that he has sung without Auto-Tune on one track, at least, on each of his albums since 2005′s Rappa Ternt Sanga, the default reaction when he unfurls his supple, ingratiating tenor in public is always: GASP. T-Pain sings WITHOUT AUTO-TUNE! It’s always noted this way, with all caps. (Here are just a few examples, in the last five years, of this recurring amnesia.) The operative assumption beneath all this, “Oh my gosh, I had no idea” surprise is that T-Pain is a big happy, talentless goof with a silly hat where dignity might usually go.
He suffers from an acute case of Billy Joel Syndrome, in which a talented craftsman endures a lifelong arms’-length relationship to respect. It’s an infuriating purgatory, with clearly defined parameters: You can — in fact, you are expected to — hold forth dryly and wittily on your position whenever publicly asked. Hell, both T-Pain and Joel were given recent New Yorker profiles to do just this. You can (you must) find prominent opportunities to parody yourself. You can be in on the joke, in other words, but you can’t stop living it.
It’s a particularly cruel irony for T-Pain, who has done more to shape the sound of mainstream rap and R&B than anyone in the last decade. His influence is everywhere. Anytime you hear a rapper’s voice in singsong, processed digitally, you are hearing a world T-Pain invented. That describes Future, Lil Wayne, Kanye post-808s and Heartbreaks, but it’s also the sound of current hitmaker and obvious T-Pain heir Ty Dolla $ign, as well as Dej Loaf, Speaker Knockerz, Young Thug, Chief Keef, Lil Durk, Sicko Mobb and any number of street-level acts that were ten years old when T-Pain became famous. They, of course, would tell you they were following Lil Wayne, Future or Kanye’s lead.
T-Pain seems too sunny and self-deprecating to be pissed about all of this, exactly, but he’s allowed himself the satisfaction some grousing and the occasional potshot: “As far as how he uses Auto-Tune, I don’t think he knows how it works,” T-Pain said of Future in a 2013 radio interview. “I think he’s thinking that you just turn it on and then it just happens…A lot of people don’t sing with it, a lot of people just sing and then put it on after, which is a terrible mistake. There’s a lot of stuff you’ve gotta know about Auto-Tune before you can start using it.” He said the exact same of Kanye to Huffington Post this month — “[He] makes great music with it…but he doesn’t use it [correctly]” — while also reminding us that he worked extensively with Kanye on 808s.
T-Pain is solely responsible for all the music on his records — producing, songwriting, hook-writing, concepts. He called his debut Rappa Ternt Sanga “hard&B” not because he was trying to pose as a gangsta, he explained, but because he did it all, “the hard way,” i.e. by himself. (He sold copies of the album out of a knapsack on the streets of Tallahassee.) There is a word people usually throw around for this approach, but you will never hear “T-Pain” and “auteur” in the same sentence, any sooner than you would hear it next to “Tyler Perry.” (It fits in both cases, by the way.) Why do T-Pain’s followers get the credit while he’s left with “I’m On a Boat”?
In a certain sense, the answer has nothing to do with T-Pain and everything to do with cell phones. T-Pain’s rise coincided with a peculiar, transitional moment for music and technology: Carrying phones in your pockets had become normalized, but the multiple functions tacked onto them — outside of calling and texting — felt distinctly tacky and chintzy. The idea of a “ringtone” is already an anachronism, “ringtone rap” even more so. But no one sold more ringtones than T-Pain. “Buy U A Drank,” his 2007 hit, sold twice as many ringtones as it did downloads — 2.3 million versus 1.6, while the album, Epiphany, trailed behind at 656,000 copies.”I’m N Luv (Wit A Stripper),” his breakout 2005 single, moved 5 million ringtones, earning a BMI Music Award for fastest-selling ringtone in history. The song itself didn’t even crack one million.
In doing so, he became the personification of a trend with a cultural standing somewhere between emoticons and car alarms. As “cell phones” morphed into “smart phones,” he capitalized early, releasing an iPhone app in 2009 called “I Am T-Pain” that allowed anyone to pass their voices through a T-Painish filter. It arrived at the same moment that Jay Z, stern and scowling, released “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-tune),” a publicity stunt that adversely affected exactly one artist: T-Pain, who was named in the song’s lyrics. It turned worse when an uninvited T-Pain joined Jay Z on stage at Hot 97’s Summer Jam that year to mean mug during “D.O.A.” Jay threw T-Pain under the bus, memeified him and later accused one-hit wonder Lil Mama of aping that behavior when she, also uninvited, joined him and Alicia Keys at the VMAs for “New York State of Mind.” (Oh, there was also Ghostface, who blamed the miserable sales of The Wizard of Poetry on Jay Z’s proclamation.)
Of course, now we are our phones. The only oddity in our all-consuming relationship to them is that we still bother to call them “phones,” just as we insistently refer to bundles of transferable mp3 files as “mixtapes.” T-Pain, however, never shook off the aura of recently outdated consumer technology — cheap, tacky, slightly embarrassing. For god’s sake, a song called “69″ on his 2007 album Epiphany was a sex pun built around the old “star 69″ callback function.
It would be dishonest not to blame T-Pain for some of his problems. For several years, he said “yes” to everything. It’s surprisingly difficult to arrive at a complete tally of just how many songs he appeared on between 2007 and 2009, but at least thirty of them were forgettable to terrible. “I remember how hard it was for me to get somebody to get on my song, so I ain’t about to put that on somebody else,” he told an interviewer in 2007. You say “yes” to everything, and eventually, the universe starts spitting out “no.”
T-Pain’s new album is called Stoicville, and the first single, premiered yesterday at The Fader, is a clear bid for that respectability that he’s always seem resigned to never receiving. “I realize I can make an impression / But good lord, this is fucking depressing,” he raps, clearly and forcibly, over a soft bed of pianos and weeping string synth pads. It calls back to the very beginning of his career — the blistering two minute intro to Rappa Ternt Sanga, where he unfurls a lifetime’s worth of hopes and frustrations in one long verse, in a rapid-fire cadence that recalls Dungeon Family. At the time, the song was an introduction and a rebirth, a leap into a new territory after an early career spent in a traditional rap group called Nappy Headz. Now, almost a decade later, maybe T-Pain can re-introduce himself.