We examine why the "Rappa Ternt Sanga" T-Pain is still yet to get his fair share of the credit in hip-hop and R&B.
In the eyes of many hip-hop devotees, respecting your elders has become something of a lost art. Downgraded from an obligation to vague guideline, the days of "paying homage" have been largely swept away in a tide of youthful dismissiveness. Often viewed as one of the hip-hop’s leading contrarians, this is something that Russ has been up in arms about of late. Brought to light during a visit to Elliott Wilson’s Rap Radar, the Diemon Crew figurehead cited numerous artists that he saw as being unfairly maligned. "I just think it’s insane, the disrespect and the dismissiveness that people have," he proclaimed. "We all know that if DMX, Lil Wayne, Nicki, and T-Pain passed away today, it would fuck the world up. Why can’t you have that level of respect while they’re here?"
While the first three are common fixtures of any list regarding hip-hop’s seminal figures, one man that seldom gets his fair share of the attention is Faheem Najm, better known to the world as T-Pain. A veteran of the industry, he may have technically plied his trade in R&B, but what’s often overlooked is just how much his stylistic daringness and approach to production permeates through hip-hop to this day. In the midst of an elevated state of visibility, his 2019 album 1Up was released to coincide with his victory on the Masked Singer and boasted appearances from Weezy—fittingly titled “GOAT Talk”-- Tory Lanez, Flipp Dinero and Boosie Badazz for good measure. Now, with the artist’s 2019 tour being cancelled on the grounds of poor ticket sales, younger fans may need to squint to see the lasting and indelible impression that T-Pain has left on the wider musical world. When in reality, he deserves to spoken about it much loftier terms.
T-Pain circa 2006 - Ray Tamarra/Getty Images
Handpicked to join Konvict Music, his 2005 debut album Rappa Ternt Sanga was an informal starting pistol for a whole host of artists that would heed his example. Brought into the public domain by the wistful “I’m Sprung” and “I’m ‘n Luv (Wit A Stripper),” the Tallahassee singer’s career was uplifted by making a concerted effort to separate himself from his fellow local artists in the rap group Nappy Headz. "I wanted to be a singer instead of a rapper because everybody in Tallahassee was rapping," he told NPR. "I was sounding like everybody else because, you know, every city has a certain sound that they create… the first few songs I recorded got noticed. And, you know, they were on the radio the next day. And after that, Akon started hearing it." Finally afforded a lucrative opportunity, his drive to differentiate himself would inform the creation of what’s since become not only his trademark sound but an intrinsic part of the modern artist’s playbook.
Make no mistake, T-Pain’s virtuosic skill with autotune didn’t manifest by accident. Inspired by encountering the Dark Child remix of Jennifer Lopez’s “If You Had My Love” in which the effect was used “for a second,” the Floridian was hellbent on learning the in’s and out’s of the process. But rather than diving in headfirst, T-Pain took a scholarly approach. "I can firmly say that noone has looked into autotune the way I have," he told DJ Vlad. "I literally met the inventor of Auto-Tune. I talked to him about the way Auto-Tune was invented…You send a tone into Pro Tools and it sends you the right tone back and a lot of math went into that shit. I studied autotune for two years before I used it once. And I know it happened too fast. After I used it, n****s started coming out of nowhere."
Sure enough, within a year of his debut album’s release, his services would be called upon by everyone from Birdman & Lil Wayne to DJ Khaled, Plies & E-40. Crucial in popularizing the technology but by no means the sole proponent of it, his soon-to-be routine enlistment by other artists and the calibre of star he attracted lends credence to why T-Pain views his influence as two-fold, rather than defined by the one facet that everyone hones in on. "Auto-Tune has helped me just create another genre of music, you know. And I think that I've changed the direction of music. I've changed the sound of music. I've seen kids shows using Auto-Tune now. It's just getting weird. But, at the same time, I think it got as big as it did because it came along when I had better concepts than a lot of the stuff that was out at the time."
Ever the iconoclast in his own right, his trailblazing approach was heeded by none other than Kanye West. After they teamed up for a blockbuster single in Graduation’s "Good Life," he’d soon be on the payroll once more as Kanye’s mindset veered away from celebration and into more emotionally raw territory. Regularly cited as an album that gave many of today’s artists their first exposure of Auto-Tune’s emotive capabilities, the secret history of 808’s & Heartbreak makes it less of a distant cousin to T-Pain’s debut album and more of a direct descendant. When asked what role he played by Genius’ Rob Markman, T-Pain didn’t gloss over the fine print: "Everything," the Floridian revealed. "We had writing sessions; I was in there helping with a lot of the 808’s. He said he wanted that sound from my first album so I brought all the stuff I used, which was pretty much garage band. I showed him what vibes or feelings I had making it and they kind of migrated over to [808’s.]" So, while other sonic explorations grant 808’s its rightful title as a landmark project, it represented more of a tipping point as it pertained to the sound that “Teddy Verseti” pioneered.
T-Pain with Twista and Kanye West on stage, 2007 - Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Called upon by Ludacris,Ace Hood and everyone else in between, T-Pain was reaching a point of self-acknowledged over-saturation by the time that Jay-Z dropped “D.O.A (Death Of Autotune)” from 2009’s The Blueprint 3. A harsh critique of hip-hop artists emulating Teddy’s style as opposed to a direct assault on him— “get back to rap, you T-Paining too much”— Pain quickly went from aggrieved to “supporting it” at that year’s Hot 97 Summer Jam.
Surviving a backhanded shot from Jay in a way that few artists have, T-Pain would soon take a backseat for several years. However, it wasn’t as a result of being ran out of town by a hip-hop heavyweight, but due to the toll that his breakneck life in the public eye was taking on him and his family. "I was straight, I was good with the money I had," he informed The Breakfast Club. "I was still getting money; I didn’t stop shows. It was more important for my kids not to call me other daddy because for a long time, they thought me at home and me on TV were two different people. That’s how much I didn’t see them. I had too much money," T continued. "I was drunk all the time. I think at first I was drunk just because I could be…You just drink it cause it’s there. You make a bowl of Frosties with Hennessey. Once that started affected my day-to-day life, that’s when I got depressed so then I drank more. It was a self-inflicted. I did it to myself."
Years on from the height of the autotune controversy, it’s clear that the techniques and melodic tendencies that he brought to the forefront played an indispensable role in the careers of Travis Scott, Future, Wiz Khalifa and even his frequent collaborator and one-time labelmate Lil Wayne, from Tha Carter 3 onwards. Beyond these easily detectable disciples, T-Pain’s style has even been cross-pollinated with Fabolous’ New York romance rap sound within the Summertime Shootout series, while Tory Lanez took great pleasure in gaining T-Pain’s approval after repurposing “I’m Sprung” for one of Chixtape 5’s standout efforts. Just when you think his influence could be pigeonholed to hip-hop & R&B alone, a recent conversation with Billboard gave the Tallahassee artist a platform to explain that his fingerprints are stretch further than many would’ve envisioned. "I’ve dabbled in country, I’ve written songs with Luke Bryan. I’ve done that with Taylor Swift. I’ve come back to do Pitbull, DJ Khaled and the most gangsta rappers, all the way to Christian pop." He added: "I don’t want there to be a specific sound or anything like that. You’ll know my voice when you hear it."
Despite the second-hand sorrow that many felt after his poor ticket sales kiboshed his tour, T-Pain appears to have taken it in his stride. Even when the rest of the listening public and his own musical offspring may overlook him, the notion of anyone finding the "next T-Pain" presented the veteran as anything but crestfallen over his standing. "Bro. Just because somebody has 2 songs YOU like does NOT mean they are “tHe NeW tPaIn," he tweeted in October. "I been doing this shit for way too long and done saved too many other artists careers and had too many #1 records for a n***a wit a hot single to be the new me. chill bro… 2 platinum albums. 6 Grammys. Writing for your new fave. I’m good mama. Fact check."