T-Pain dropped his new mixtape at the end of last week. After keeping busy with three mixtapes and four studio records in less than a decade, T-Pain went dark with no releases since 2012, until now.  After filling up the interim with featured roles on tracks by basically every big name out there, and even taking a detour to quiet haters by putting his musical prowess on display in an NPR Tiny Desk Concert, The Iron Way marks the Florida born musician's true return.

T-Pain doesn’t skimp his audience with this mixtape-- perhaps to its detriment. The album is stuffed with 20 tracks, which at its highest moments, act as an impressive display of the Nappy Boy Entertainment founder’s wide array of talents. After starting his career as a rapper, before letting his sound evolve into R&B, and then pioneering the auto-tune sound, The Iron Way effectively assembles the diverse elements of its author's musicality in a digestible fashion. Tracks like “15” and “Booty Butt Ass” serve as prime examples of T-Pain’s threat level-- he stands out as an MC, while still being able to layer in his trademark auto-tune sound in a way that’s "so dope it’s effortless."

With that being said, The Iron Way definitely does not shy away from the auto-tune that brought T-Pain to the dance, so to speak. This is actually a somewhat surprising turn of events, after the rappa-ternt-sanga opened up about how the influx of auto-tune detractors actually drove him to addiction. Hearing that, and then watching him croon in his Tiny Desk Concert, could have fans thinking that they might never hear a track like “Need to Be Smokin” on a T-Pain album again, and yet here it is on The Iron Way.

His past now contextualizes the auto-tune heavy tracks, in a strange way, as brave. Though the tracks that exploit the auto-tune most on The Iron Way can also sometimes be the toughest to get through (“Heartbeat” comes to mind), there’s something admirable about its use this time around. Maybe this practice is T-Pain’s “iron way”; unflinching, unbudging, but with enduring entertainment.

And that’s truly what’s most enjoyable about the latest T-Pain installment, its entertainment value. T-Pain has never shied away from showmanship, and this mixtape is no exception. In the closing moments of the mixtape's opening track, T-Pain welcomes us to The Iron Way like a true Master of Ceremonies and then treats us to a monologue from 2006’s "Rocky Balboa." Despite the bumps on his path thus far, the mixtape makes it evident that T-Pain is still having fun making music. Perhaps of paramount, it proves that he has such an eclectic gathering of talent, that having just turned 30, he has a long enduring career ahead of him.

By the end of the mixtape the meaning of the scene from the end of “Kill These Ni**as”, which features Sly Stallone delivering a speech about having to prove yourself, is evident but perhaps feels a little unearned. Even though some tracks on The Iron Way come with mega replay value (“Disa My Ting” plays multiple times a day), there's also a sense of wanting more. Given the recent hype surrounding the singer's releases, a greater shift in sound and a bigger statement was expected, especially given the singer's hiatus and his own vocal objection to his haters.  

Sure, a lot of tracks directly target T-Pain’s non-believers, but when he gets caught up in flipping the bird, all that comes across is anger, and nothing so innovative or different from other offerings currently in the hip-hop world.  How much of a triumphant statement can a track like “Personal Business” make when the best line T-Pain drops is, "I ain’t fucking with these nig*as I’m an industry virgin?"

T-Pain’s next installment is his studio album, Stoicville The Phoenix. While The Iron Way certainly gets the rapper/singer’s frustrations with the opposition across clearly, it seems as though we might have to wait until September 2015 to see if T-Pain can truly ascend like the upcoming album’s eponymous phoenix and start anew, rising from the proverbial ashes with something more dense to chew on. In the mean time, we’ll have to trim the fat from The Iron Way for ourselves, picking out the handful of tracks that indicate a revitalized T-Pain and not one either in transition, or even worse “like a broken record” serving out the “same old thing,” as so aptly put on “Personal Business.”

T-Pain - The Iron Way (Hosted By DJ Drama)