After a long time out of the eye of music listeners, T-Pain has returned with his 5th studio album. But is it too late for the man who brought autotune to the top?
Time is incredibly merciless to far too many people in music, especially in the 21st century. An artist can have a hot year one moment, and then, if there is not enough or just the right amount of presence in the public eye-- the same person can be left behind without a second thought. Just as artists can strategically withdraw from public eye or remain a contrived "mystery," an artist can equally overexpose and oversaturate themselves into the market, releasing too many singles or features. Then, when they fail to make the charts for a second, listeners might regard this "deprivation" of a familiar face as a welcome relief from someone that, while they liked at the time, was beginning to overstay their welcome. This is especially difficult for artists who’ve maintained careers and a consistent output over, not only years, but decades, as whole generations grow up with new expectations and desires for what music they want to hear. And as far as modern music goes, nobody reflects that situation better than Faheem Rashad Najm, better known to the public as T-Pain.
T-Pain’s an artist who really doesn’t need an introduction, but in retrospect his career inspires a great deal of awe. Coming up out of Tallahassee, Florida under the mentorship of Akon, T-Pain’s debut single “Sprung” in 2005 is, looking back, a groundbreaking moment in pioneering the both beloved and bemoaned studio effect of auto-tune. Since then, auto-tune’s impact on music, most predominantly Rap and R&B, has been massive, and I think few others could argue to being more influential with popularizing the use of auto-tune than T-Pain. While it could have very well been a brief novelty single, T-Pain continued to follow it with a series of singles that saw him continuously redefining the ways in which one could use autotune, whether it was as a rapper, singer, or producer. Before the second half of the decade came to a close, he’d gone from being regarded as a no-talent gimmick artist to earning Grammys, topping the Billboard awards, and working on so many high-profile collaborations that he’d truly become one of the most frequent staples of radio. However, those glory days seemed to slip through his fingers after frequent album delays saw a three year gap between his third and fourth albums, and more often than not his own singles failed in favor of him applying hooks for other artists. Now approaching five years since his last album, Oblivion feels the pressure on trying to prove that a man who shaped the course of music can still try and keep up with the present day.
T-Pain’s greatest strength ever since the early days of his career was his versatility. Plenty of listeners took his “Rappa Ternt Sanga” persona a bit too literally at first, and didn’t necessarily recognize the guy was actually a multi-talented and proficient as a singer, rapper, musician and producer-- that sort of display of talent took years to demonstrate and win over fans with. This was married to an excessiveness as a songwriter, as someone who loved to take modern subjects that people don’t necessarily look at as romantic, like strippers or drinking in the club, and make them feel worthy of passion. T-Pain would infuse the emotion and heart that any classic soul-singer might have for their traditional love song, yet he would often provide a comedic bent in order to show he didn’t take the material he was singing all too seriously. However, a decade later, there’s a real awkward sort of cloying edge to his persona, making T-Pain feel like a comedian whose unable (or unwilling) to recognize that their act need to be updated. Sure, there’s a lot of guys in R&B right now who willingly embrace the art of being an asshole, who actually take pages out of T-Pain’s book (including Ty Dolla Sign, who shows up for a pretty uninspired sounding performance on “2 Fine”); but there’s something about the songs on Oblivion, where instead of charming he can tend to sound obnoxious or gross. For example, you get the feeling that when he croons about coming on some other dude's pillowcase on “Straight” that he thinks this might be funny or cool, rather than cringeworthy.
“Straight” in particular represents another particular flaw on Oblivion, which is the fact that the majority of the album consists of a kind of stock "rap banger" template. Now listen, T-Pain as a rapper can often surprise and really hit the spot, if you let yourself sleep on his considerable skills. Guest verses on Ciara’s “Go Girl” or the remixes of “Black & Yellow” and “Arab Money” were particular highlights for those who were in the know. But at the same time, maybe it was the sparing quality in the way he approached rapping, or maybe it was even the fact that he didn’t sound as determined to hunt down a hit as a rapper. Because even when you get a beat like the Public Enemy-flipping “That’s How It Go” or the plaintive “I Told My Girl,” you never expect or frankly want to hear T-Pain rapping about how he’s clutching the Draco (hell, at this point I don’t want to hear any rapper mention a Draco for at least a year, let alone T-Pain). Nothing about these rap records are particularly bad, mind you, they just lack any sort of distinct identity and feel faintly derivative of hits by the likes of Future and Travis Scott, and therein lies the problem. Both of those acts are in some way or another indebted to how T-Pain blazed a trail with auto-tune, and to hear him chase after his musical grandkids feels kind of beneath him.
Now this isn’t to say that Oblivion is just T-Pain rapping for sixteen or so tracks and forgetting everything he’s proven that he’s good at. Elsewhere on the album there are more than a few attempts at crossing genres and experimenting musically, not just in R&B but in pop, EDM and even latin music. The results of these demonstrations feel remarkably mixed for someone who’s proven to be as consistent and bold with his choices as T-Pain. As far as the aforementioned EDM joints go, “No Rush” is marred by generic production, flat melodies and a kind of stale “lothario goes straight for That One Girl” theme, while “She Needed Me” tends to sound gratingly strained in the vocals with or without the signature pitch correction. “Cece from D.C.” has a light go-go tinge and a decent Wale feature, but feels rather underdeveloped, while the sprawling “May I” has so much going on musically (including a dramatic Mr. Talkbox feature that can finally show fake experts that, no, T-Pain and Roger Troutman did VERY different things), but really could’ve used some editing down to a less exhausting length. Surprising nobody, the straightforward R&B slow-jam “Texting My Ex” is actually well-crafted, mature R&B, with a stellar Tiffany Evans guest feature that deserves to shut down all criticism from any leftover Steve Harvey types that think T-Pain is just a guy with a cool computer program instead of talent.
Ultimately, long-time fans of T-Pain or even casual listeners are probably not going to be satisfied with Oblivion after repeat listens. There’s at least a few tracks where you might find Pain's many talents being focused and honed in to the high level of songwriting that he’s developed over the years, and in the end, nothing sounds too out of place here. However, too much of the album either feels like tired hit-chasing, or its doing too much either musically or lyrically, and the results is a fairly middling album. Perhaps the golden age of T-Pain has come to a close, but maybe this is just the initial missteps of a veteran slowly working to find himself after being kept off the radar for such a long time.