Matthew Munhall | Thursday, March 26, 2015
Perhaps the most unexpected event of this year’s SXSW festival was the comeback of T-Pain, who was the surprise headliner at the Fader Fort the night of March 20. The artist, born Faheem Rasheed Najm, performed an incredible 42-song set that drew on his massive catalog of hits, from solo records “Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” and “Can’t Believe It,” to guest appearances on “Good Life” and “Got Money.” Backed by a fantastic live band and background singers who doubled as enthusiastic dancers, his set affirmed that we’re in the middle of the T-Painaissance.
While T-Pain’s early singles like “I’m Sprung” and “I’m ’n Luv (Wit a Stripper)” were largely critically derided, he went on to score 15 Top-10 singles between 2006 and 2011, including three number ones. While he was inescapable on mainstream radio in the mid-to-late-2000s, he hasn’t placed a song in the Top 40 since “5 O’Clock” reached number 10 in 2011.
T-Pain’s influence stretches farther than just a number of radio hits, however. His music pioneered the use of Auto-Tune to create chilly, robotic vocals. Although T-Pain wasn’t the first mainstream artist to use the pitch-correction software as a stylistic choice — Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe” started the trend — he was responsible for popularizing its use in pop music. His signature Auto-Tune warble began a trend that not even Jay Z, who name-dropped T-Pain on his anti-Auto-Tune track “D.O.A.,” could stop.
Over the past half-decade, the line between rap and R&B has become increasingly blurred, largely due to the influence of T-Pain. T-Pain inspired Kanye West to sing with extensive Auto-Tune on his 2008’s “808s & Heartbreak,” a minimalist record that utilized pitch correction to evoke a distorted, heartbroken sound. “808s” in turn influenced an entire wave of rappers, with Drake at the forefront, who weren’t afraid to sing. The most recent wave of T-Pain acolytes includes Ty Dolla $ign, Chief Keef and Young Thug, who are as much vocalists as they are rappers and regularly experiment with their voices as instruments.
In addition to the critical reevaluation of his influence, T-Pain has slowly returned to the limelight over the past year. The resurgence began in earnest in February of last year, when he released a remix of Lorde’s “Royals.” The original song was an anthem for middle-class teenagers who felt alienated by materialistic pop songs but aimed its criticism at signifiers of rap music. On the remix, T-Pain and Young Cash sing about how their consumerism is a symbol of having escaped poverty and being able to support their families and their communities. It’s a brilliant defense and reclamation of the song for rap music.
Then, in October of last year T-Pain performed for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, singing sans Auto-Tune. “I know everybody’s wondering where the Auto-Tune is gonna come from,” he joked to the crowd of public radio staffers beforehand. “It’s okay, I’ve got it in my pocket.” When he started singing a stripped-down version of “Buy U A Drank,” though, his soulful natural voice was on full display. T-Pain never used Auto-Tune as a crutch; his real voice is gorgeous. The NPR performance was a reminder of just how talented he is.
For T-Pain, the challenge now is building on this momentum. He’s slated to release a new mixtape, “The Iron Way,” this Friday, and he’s working on his next studio album, “Stoicville: The Phoenix,” which is due out sometime in 2015. Whether these projects will elevate T-Pain to his mid-2000s level of success is anyone’s guess.
In an NPR interview last year, T-Pain discussed the period of depression he experienced after the sound he created was treated as a joke and he was dismissed as talentless. “I’m not gonna change my style because other people are starting to overuse it,” he said. “I’m not gonna do that so I’m gonna keep pushing. I’m gonna do what I believe in.” He already changed the sound of rap and R&B once, but here’s hoping that the T-Painaissance continues and that T-Pain keeps doing what he believes in for a long time to come.