In Defense of T-Pain: An Excerpt From Ben Westhoff's new book, "Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop"
For years now, T-Pain has been something of a hip-hop punching bag. Among other things, he's been accused of homogenizing music with Auto-Tune, dumbing it down, and destroying its humanity.
It made sense to many, then, when a video clip showing him with his arm around Sean Hannity surfaced last year, plugging Hannity's show and, when prompted, endorsing the cause of "conservative victory 2010." Naturally, a man who had no soul — in the James Brown sense — would have no soul, in the political sense.
(Never mind that Pain had no idea who Hannity was and contends that the smarmy host had been blocking the door to his bus, pestering him for a shoutout.)
But there's another reading on T-Pain, one that I prefer. Blessed with neither good looks nor traditional singing talent, he's succeeded by finding rap's heart. His songs focus on love, his lyrics aren't crude by genre standards, and he emphasizes melody. A veritable hip-hop anachronism, he's also a devoted father and husband who pens love songs about his wife.
Juan Fernando Velasco
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Think of him as the anti-Lil Wayne or the anti-Kanye West. Though T-Pain has collaborated with both and they all use Auto-Tune, he lacks their avant-garde pretentions and rock-star entitlement. West, for example, throws temper tantrums when he doesn't win awards, but T-Pain once actually gave up his Ozone tastemaker citation in favor of another nominee, Pimp C, insisting he deserved it more.
T-Pain has a wide face and some extra pounds. His stage outfits include hallucinatory paisley vests, topcoats, and Willy Wonka-style top hats over his nappy brown-and-black dreads. His label is called Nappy Boy. "It came from me not knowing how to dress," T-Pain explains of his sartorial approach. "I would just throw shit on. If I found a hat, then I'd wear a hat that day. I just didn't give a damn about being cool."
His music, much of it hip-hop-informed R&B, has a similarly unanalyzed, whimsical appeal. He crafts hits easily, almost as if by accident. One time in 2008, bored in the studio, he was having a few drinks and decided to entertain himself. Riffing on gospel singer Kirk Franklin's song "Silver and Gold" ("I'd rather have Jesus than silver and gold"), he added a new beat, Auto-Tune, and secular lyrics about combining silver and gold tequila.
"Somebody's gonna have to carry me home/I done mixed up silver and gold," he sang. The song wasn't for an album or even a mixtape, but it leaked, and within a day, hundreds of thousands of people had downloaded it.
Fans assumed it was a single off of an upcoming album. Franklin complained, and T-Pain, apologetic, did what he could to squelch it. But it was hopeless. "Silver and Gold" had gone viral. Eventually his camp had no choice but to push his new album back so no one would get the wrong idea.
T-Pain's grandparents came from the Bahamas, and his folks lived in Miami before moving to Tallahassee to study at Florida A&M. He was born into a Muslim household and named Faheem Najm, but he has little patience for religion these days. "I just think of it as another form of separation and segregation," he says. This too makes him a hip-hop oddball; not praising God in your songs is like not praising Cadillacs.
His dad was a dispatcher for the city electric company, and his mom was an ob-gyn nurse. The family lived on a nice stretch of Ridge Road, but both parents were so busy working that they barely noticed when their son essentially dropped out of school in eighth grade, T-Pain says. By high school, he wasn't attending classes, though he'd sometimes drop by the lunch hour and rhyme with his friends, pounding on tables to keep the beat. "I couldn't get in trouble because I didn't go to the school," he says, "so it's not like they could send me to the principal's office."
His showbiz aspirations developed at a young age. T-Pain, in fact, means Tallahassee-Pain, the pain referencing the struggle of trying to succeed in a town off the entertainment industry's radar. The youngest child in a musical family, he also had two brothers, aspiring musicians whom he emulated, and their father groomed them for music careers by conducting interviews on the family couch like they were on 106 & Park.
With some friends, he and his brothers formed a group called Nappy Headz, performing 280 shows one year by T-Pain's count, as far north as D.C. and as far west as Texas. In addition to their ferocious work ethic, they also had a ruffian image. You can hear T-Pain rapping tough on their minor hit, "Robbery," which he says was the style in Tallahassee at the time.
The thug stuff didn't feel right, however, and one day he had an epiphany — he would sing tender songs, which came more naturally. This activated his creative energies, he says, and helped him learn to stay true to himself rather than following the crowd. Hence the outfits.
He recorded his first demo CD on his home computer using equipment a friend had boosted from a CompUSA store. Armed with a fake gift card, the guy walked out with thousands of dollars' worth of hardware, software, and speakers, and he shared the bounty. T-Pain's demo, Rappa Ternt Sanga ("Rapper Turned Singer"), sprouted "I'm Sprung," about a man so in love that he's cooking and washing dishes for his lady.
In 2004, he signed a deal with Konvict Muzik, the label cofounded by rising star Akon, for whom, in fact, T-Pain had originally written "I'm Sprung." "I played it for Akon, and he was like, 'Wow, this sounds great, but I don't do songs about [women],' " he remembers. And so T-Pain rewrote the track as an ode to his wife, Amber, and it was a surprise hit, leading to Jive's release of Rappa Ternt Sanga in 2005.
He and Amber, a former Air Force servicewoman, had recently been married, when she was 21 and he just 18. They now have three children together: Kaydnz, Lyriq, and Muziq. "Kaydnz just started walking a little bit," he says. "It's so dope, so awesome."
Not many rappers are espoused, and even fewer talk about their wives publicly. But T-Pain specifically instructs his security team not to let random ladies get anywhere near him. Amber, despite lacking Beyoncé looks, remains the focus of his life. "I feel like I would never have that closure in my life if I never got married," he says. "When I'm by myself, that shit gets depressing." (It's worth noting that, in a rap-star twist on fidelity, she sometimes permits a second woman in their bed.)
As he raps on his track "More Careful":
"They say my girl look regular/But having a bad bitch don't make you better, bra'.../And I don't get no attitude; I get respect/'Cause she was with me three years before I got the check."
T-Pain became known for songs that were breezy yet insistent, catchy but gentle, more focused on romance than sex. Even his next big hit, "I'm N Luv (Wit a Stripper)," is based on a friend's experience, mind you.
Both it and "I'm Sprung" employ Auto-Tune, and T-Pain's brand of roboticized pop began to take off. Before long, he was in demand for guest verses and hooks, collaborating with artists like Jamie Foxx ("Blame It"), Chris Brown ("Kiss Kiss"), and Ciara ("Go Girl").
Follow-up albums Epiphany, named for his personal revelation, and Thr33 Ringz also hit big, and though his profile has fallen somewhat since his late-aughts peak, he remains an in-demand hooksmith. T-Pain says that the secret to his success has been creating songs that he likes rather than what he'd imagine a particular demographic might prefer.
"I never come out of the booth, like, 'White people are gonna fall over for this song' or, 'Black people are going to love riding in their car to this song,' " he says. "Fuck that. I don't care who else likes the song. If I like it, I'm going to make it a single."
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