The Auto-Tuneization of T-Pain

April 19, 2009

You have to hand it to T-Pain for becoming hip-hop’s flagship auto-tune poster child. Using a studio technique that never really had an outright presence in hip-hop and R&B, he’s managed to turn one of the most intellectually noxious vocal filters in existence into a hip-hop staple in less than half a decade. But what no one has realized is that the top hat-adorned crooner, once the laughing stock of the music industry for setting back rap about 15 years, could have just become a footnote in the hip-hop history – if it weren’t for the miming effect that gave him premier ownership over the trend.

T-Pain first sunk his glittery teeth into the Billboard charts with 2005’s “I’m Sprung,” auto-tuning his way through tales of tying a leash around his junk for a chick. Since then, he’s only capitalized on those eccentricities and gotten weirder, making a natural progression from the club (“Bartender”) to fighting with a dude outside the club (“Church”) straight to the circus on his latest album Thr33 Ringz. On top of that, he’s made guest appearances on just about everyone else’s album, making him only two features away from being asked to lend his auto-tuned croon to the hook for Jesus’ resurrection single.

But a funny phenomenon has occurred since Teddy Penderaz sprung his way into the good graces of America. After selling millions (you always have to wonder who exactly those poor schmucks are that have the nerve to go to a record store and proudly slide a T-Pain album over to the cashier) and cranking out hits for Chris Brown and Lil’ Mama (that’s right, I said it, HIT), T-Pain thawed the icy hearts of all the haters. And, with the bandwagon of artists enlisting his cyborg services on their respective singles and his omnipresence on top-40 radio, auto-tune started to sound kind of nice.

That didn’t necessarily earn him credibility. T-Pain still was viewed as the unintentional jester in hip-hop’s high court, wildly gratuitous with his abundant use of auto-tune and shamefully over-the-top with his theatricality (his spiking vocal inflections alone could make a clown smear his makeup with tears of envy). But T-Pain didn’t even need to defend his honor to bolster his reputation: the rest of hip-hop did it for him. Instead of having to justify his questionable domination of hip-pop, chart-topping staples like Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Ron Brownz (OK, he’s just an add-on to complete the journalistic rule of threes) unfurled the red carpet that led to his current hip-pop throne. Each and every use of auto-tune has only added another notch to T-Pain’s fat, jewel-encrusted belt, with an artist’s legitimacy in using the effect confirmed only in receiving Teddy P’s stamp of approval.

A few questions need to be asked. What if artists like Diddy and Kanye didn’t reappropriate this sound and use it on their singles? Would T-Pain still be as famous and well-revered as he is today? Or would he still be the laughing stock of hip-hop? Could auto-tune have even become as popular without a self-parodying buffoon like T-Pain abusing it?

The answer is that his success has been a combination of factors that have pushed this man into the multimillion sales zone. At the heart of it, T-Pain is a fantastic songwriter, with almost every one of his songs snapping and popping along to a mellifluous melody, packed to the brim with harmonies and sparkling synthesizers. Auto-tune only enhances the replay value of those gorgeous compositions by completing the overall sonic puzzle. And what’s more is that T-Pain is a character unlike any emcee before him, donning top hats over his lizard-like skull (its highlights include blinding silver fronts and eternally-shaded eyes that, if rumors are true, turn you to stone if you look directly at them) and posing in promo pics next to elephants. He’s created an image alien to hip-hop that matches up with his on-wax persona, a combination that’s deservedly fared well for him over the past four years.

But the main factor that’s really earned T-Pain his stripes has been the co-signs. Lil Wayne and Kanye West, in spite of all their success, are still a pair of downright imitators, able to exceed T-Pain’s success but with only half the honor. T-Pain will always be the originator, as sad as that may be, and no one can take that away from him. And in an industry where being the “first” gets you cred (take a look at all the douches on message boards across the internet, spamming comment sections with idiotic postings that read “FIRST”), T-Pain’s got bragging rights to being the king of the ‘tune. Whether or not the studio effect’s shelf life is soon set to expire is a whole other story, but at least we know how T-Pain got here: a little bit of talent, a whole lot of imitators and a hit song about a stripper. That career trajectory’s transparency makes him a lot easier to stomach these days, especially in a world where everyone from soccer moms to hood rats can find common ground shaking their shit to ignoramus hits like “Can’t Believe It.”

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