T-Pain Is Still Winning a Decade Into His Career

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T-Pain performs onstage during The Liftoff presented by Power 106 at FivePoint Amphitheatre on May 18, 2019 in Irvine, Calif.

“There was a lot of bitter T-Pain between 2012 and 2018,” the singer-songwriter says. “Now it’s just really f--king fun."

Brooklyn’s Sims Municipal Recycling facility handles a majority of New York City’s recyclables and boasts being the largest of its kind in the U.S. The center has the bonafides to compel visitors, but tucked away in the western edge of Brooklyn overlooking the Gowanus Bay, it’s a bit of schlep. Anybody present likely either works here, came to report a story, or is on a field trip -- like the group of grade school kids who stroll into lobby one Thursday May morning, probably relieved these are the rare hours it didn’t rain this week. That's also the reason that T-Pain is here. 

He trades in his Nike Off-Whites for black work boots, a reflective vest, and a white hard hat, as the facility becomes the set for season 2 of FUSE's T-Pain’s School of Business, where the titular rappa-ternt-sanga chats with entrepreneurial millennials about their endeavors. For this segment, T-Pain is surrounded by large cubes of Mazola corn oil containers, Twister juice cartons, and various recyclables as he talks to the co-founding duo behind Bionic Yarn, a company known for making fabrics out of plastics. The partners -- ponytailed Alex Tapia and the taller, scruffier Tyson Toussaint -- are mild-mannered compared to T-Pain. When they calmly explain the titanic masses of plastic floating in the Pacific, T-Pain’s “wow” is about the only word that punctures the machineries’ yawn and waterfalls of recyclables crashing onto the conveyor belts. 

In fact, T-Pain’s energy is higher than most of the producers and media people around him. He might also be one of the more tired: The friendly glint never leaves his eyes, but you might catch him aimlessly looking skyward as his knees wobble in the way an impatient child’s does. A part of him wants to be back in the studio, where he fell asleep the previous night after a session with Method Man and Mobb Deep’s Havoc. T-Pain’s schedule as a TV personality -- and, recently, an independent artist -- is arduous, but he does maintain that he’s grateful. “I wanna say it was good and hard work,” he says during a production break in an RV, after a fatigue tear escapes his right eye. “It was a good mixture of both.”

Though it’s been years since his prolific mainstream prime, T-Pain has been steadily racking up wins over the past year. The singer born Faheem Rasheed Najm surprised millions when he was revealed in April as the winner of Fox’s The Masked Singer, a competition that stars celebrities singing classics, as their identities are concealed in head-to-toe costumes (T-Pain, dressed as a monster, beat Donny Osmond, a peacock). School of Business, which premiered in 2018, earned a Critics' Choice Real TV Awards nomination (losing to Shark Tank in the Business Show category). T-Pain’s TV gigs haven't totally superseded his music output, either: He also surprise-released 1UP, his first independent album, in February.

T-Pain’s recent victories feel hard-won compared to peers who enjoyed a similar level of ubiquity. His signature Auto-Tune-coated hits remain some of the 21st century’s most recognizable, but the inescapability of his songs and their imitators made him easy joke fodder, even though he wasn’t the first person to use the device: Cher’s 1998 Auto-Tuned classic “Believe” cemented her as a legend, and Daft Punk’s “One More Time” is widely considered one of the greatest pop songs of the 21st century However, T-Pain was the first consistent hitmaker for whom Auto-Tune became the defining instrument.

“Everybody could say they did it before me and all that, but nobody created a wave," T-Pain says. He brings up Zapp frontman Roger Troutman, and his use of the talkbox, an effects gadget sometimes confused with the Auto-Tune. “Who did it after him? Nobody copied Roger Troutman; everybody copied me because I did it great.”

A digital device, the Auto-Tune was seen by some critics as a way to hide a singer’s shortcomings, rather than a tool of emotional potential. Because T-Pain was associated to the sound closely enough for it to be known as the “T-Pain Effect,” he became a scapegoat for a sort of artistic decay. It arguably wasn’t until 2013-14, when he re-emerged from a musical hiatus, that the overall perception of his work has shifted from a pop trend to artistic innovations. By then, T-Pain survived a deep depression brought on, in part, by a bitterness in watching his peers and progeny thrive off the sound he popularized. The T-Pain Effect flourished on radio, as T-Pain himself drifted away from its airwaves.

T-Pain’s career still stalled after the retrospective appraisal. The 2013 DJ Mustard-produced “Up Down (Do This All Day),” a decent Hot 100 success (No. 62), was intended to be the first single of his fifth album, then titled Stoicville: The Phoenix. But the project was hit with an aggressive number of delays under RCA. The highlight of that album run-up was T-Pain soulful appearance at NPR’s Tiny Desk, a vocally bare performance that proved to many that Auto-Tune wasn’t his crutch. Stoicville: The Phoenix eventually became Oblivion and wouldn’t arrive until 2017.

The end of T-Pain’s time as a major label artist also came at the start of a liberation period. That March, he decided to suddenly release T-Wayne, an eight-track EP of collaborations with Lil Wayne that spent almost a decade in his archives. “I texted him and said, ‘Bro, I’m about to put out this project we did,’ and he didn’t respond,” T-Pain says, noting Lil Wayne’s then-ongoing legal battle with Cash Money as a possible reason for his silence. “I was like, ‘All right, I’ll just take that as a yes.’” 

Two more collections of unreleased material, titled Everything Must Go, came the next year. The dusted-off cuts and 1UP are mainly a reminder of what endeared him in the first place. The latter in particular illustrates the flat circle nature of T-Pain’s relationship with modern pop. The neon-colored melody to "RIP to the Parking Lot" sounds like the song of the summer 2009 forgot to produce, while 1UP’s title track is a woozy Auto-Tuned confessional similar to those that make for cornerstones in Future’s catalog. It’s simply T-Pain enjoying being T-Pain again.

“There was a lot of bitter T-Pain between 2012 and 2018 [when] just mad people were winning with Auto-Tune and talking shit about me using it,” he says. “Now it’s just really fucking fun. I’m happy.”

On the warmer recent consideration of his legacy, T-Pain believes music listeners simply miss what artists from his era brought to the table. Soulja Boy, who T-Pain called the greatest artist of all-time during a February interview with Real 92.3, naturally comes up in conversation. In a sense, Draco’s career arc is the Auto-Tune kingpin's rough equivalent: Soulja Boy was criticized for being what’s wrong with hip-hop after his savvy internet marketing tactics helped push his debut single, "Crank That (Soulja Boy)," to No. 1 on the Hot 100. Now going viral has become almost a prerequisite for a hit.

“A lot of mid-2000s artists were just ahead -- I don’t think there’s any more of that,” T-Pain says. “I think people just started missing it. I think people are starting to listen to these mid-2000s artists now because they’re so tired of what’s going on. If your song sounded like anyone else in the mid-2000s, you gotta hate it -- you were not a great artist. But now if your shit don’t sound like somebody else’s, you get hated. It’s the weirdest shit in the world.”

T-Pain the TV personality says he’s made peace with the belated respect; he points out with a chuckle that his work is still keeping him paid. The glint in his eye never leaves as he goes from talking about the sour Oblivion years to a more recent tragedy. T-Pain’s brother died in February after suffering a brain injury from a fall; he was hospitalized shortly before with diabetes-related complications. He doesn’t dwell on the loss and instead smiles at how eager he was to travel with him despite being confined to his walker.

“Every time anything comes up with me -- when I hosted the iHeart Music Awards, or did Masked Singer -- I’m like, ‘Damn, we did it.’” T-Pain says. “I feel like he’s the one pushing me forward.”

So, T-Pain will be multitasking for the near future. He says he started working on a T-Wayne sequel with Lil Wayne and aims for a 2020 release. But for this Thursday, he’ll spend the rest of the day shooting what amounts to one-third of a School of Business episode. The project that’s taking up a majority of T-Pain’s time is one he was hesitant to do to begin with: He originally made plans to do a show about cars, a passion of his, before the entrepreneurial slant was pitched to him when producers discovered he’s a fan of donating to Kickstarters. He’s a musician first, so he feared the concept would be too out of his element.

Ironically, The Masked Singer was also almost a no for the Auto-Tune pioneer: Wouldn’t the fact that he was T-Pain ruin the finale’s surprise?

"The first time I talked to Lil Wayne after [T-Wayne] was him saying, “How the fuck could they not know it was you on Masked Singer?’” T-Pain remembers. “You called me about this?”

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