T-Pain (auto)tunes out critics

Rapper T-Pain shocked fans and critics alike with his stunning vocals during his NPR Tiny Desk concert. Eva Rinaldi via Flickr Creative Commons

It begins with an advisory: “This video contains explicit language.” At first, it seems like T-Pain on NPR’s Tiny Desk should be funny. It sounds like a blast. Then he appears, and it’s not the T-Pain fans are used to — the one who wrote a song about falling deeply in love with an exotic dancer “I’m N Luv (Wit A Stripper)” (2005), or released an app so you could sound just like him. This is soulful T-Pain. This is T-Pain in pain. He sits anxiously on a stool, nervously readjusts his snapback every few seconds, laughs uncertainly and says things like, “this is weird as hell for me,” and, “didn’t think you guys were gonna be here.” After quickly introducing Toro, his comically large pianist, he begins.

Warning: Nothing will prepare you for this, not even the hundred posts on your newsfeed about it, proclaiming, “nothing could have prepared you for this.” Not even the comments under the video, “DOPE S–T BRO REAL RAP U SHOULD DROP A ALBUM JUST LIKE THIS WORD UP I WOULD BUY 10 COPIES.” Because T-Pain, despite being the unofficial king of Auto-Tune, proclaimed by many critics to be the master of pitch correction and all things wrong with modern pop music, can actually sing.

For those dedicated fans of the musician, or those now claiming they’ve been fans all along, this video serves up a bit of poetic justice. T-Pain made a name for himself in the mid 2000s with his distinct style, catchy pop songs and flashy personality. He was mostly known for his distinct use of a pitch correcting device called Auto-Tune, made popular by Cher in 1999. He released hit after hit, and consistently appeared on the billboard charts, working alongside mega-popular artists such as Kanye West and R. Kelly. T-Pain was living the “Good Life” (2007).

Towards the end of the decade however, his popularity began to fade. The critics began to shout louder than T-Pain could sing about drinking. Popular artists began to lash out against this so-called fake music; Jay-Z, in particular, released “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” in 2009, a slight towards those artists guilty of using it. The mockery reached a pinnacle when parodies of his song, “I’m On a Boat” (2009), were nominated for Grammys while his own music was overlooked.

It therefore came as a shock when T-Pain recently appeared on NPR’s Tiny Desk, a video concert series focused on intimate acoustic performances. T-Pain, an unusual guest for the show, dazzled everyone in attendance, most of whom may have been present ironically, with soulful renditions of his own music. At the performance, he showed a maturity never before seen from the musician, giving a new layer to the moniker, and the artist,“T-Pain.”