T Pain Talks About Future Essay

Earlier this month, Future performed in the middle of the bill on the first day of the Made In America festival, before headliner Beyoncé and some other ostensibly higher billed artists like Big Sean. But the absolute frenzy that Future whipped the crowd into—and the fact that Beyoncé later took a moment to dance to "Where Ya At?"—seemed to speak to the scale of the impact he’s had on hip-hop in 2015. And not just on Twitter, where #FutureHive became the rallying cry of an allegedly ironic following, but out in the real world, in clubs and on car stereos and festival stages. There are other artists with bigger sales figures and concert grosses than Future, but in terms of energy and momentum, he is the hottest rapper in the game right now.

What was remarkable about Future’s Made In America set was not just the crowd reaction, but the fact that most of the songs he performed, including the ones that generated the biggest reactions, were culled from the last 12 months. Last October’s mixtapeMonster, followed in 2015 by the tapes Beast Mode and 56 Nights, and the retail album DS 2, pack in more crowd-pleasers than most rappers generate in their entire career. At the end of his set, Future announced plans to release another album later this year. A few days later, rumors started swirling of a collaborative mixtape with Drake. Another Future mixtape produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, Ape Shit, has been promised for a few months. Future already has 3 of the most impactful hip-hop releases of 2015, and that number could possibly double by the end of the year.

Future’s triumphant 2015 is perhaps hip-hop’s fastest “don’t call it a comeback” comeback since LL Cool J. Just as LL had hits like “Jinglin’ Baby” a year before Mama Said Knock You Out reinvigorated his career, Future never really left—he never got cold, merely lukewarm. “Move That Dope” was one of the biggest rap radio songs of 2014, but its parent album, Honest, had a muted impact relative to the scale of hype and big name guests that attended its release. “Real And True,” a would-be crossover hit featuring Miley Cyrus, landed with such a thud that it was left off the album, and “I Won” featuring Kanye West never got far on the airplay charts. After Future went 5 for 5 with the singles off of 2012’s Pluto, it seemed like his hit parade had run out of steam. 

It’s an all too common arc in mainstream hip-hop today: an up-and-coming rapper scores a big major-label debut, but then the second album falls short of expectations, and everything slows down. 2 Chainz and WakaFlocka Flame returned to the mixtape circuit after underperforming second albums. Others, like Wiz Khalifa, Big Sean, and even Nicki Minaj rebounded with successful third albums but didn’t quite regain all of the momentum they had after their debuts. By contrast, Future is bigger than ever in 2015, with DS2 on track to outsell his hit 2012 debut Pluto. But more than that, the narrative has shifted, his place in the game now rests on a more solid foundation. 

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Throughout the first few years of his career, Future thrived by being underestimated or under-credited. He wrote the hook that made his 2011 collaboration with YC, “Racks,” a breakthrough smash for both artists. But since YC was the primary credited artist and Future merely the featured artist, it was YC who initially gained more visibility from the song’s success. Each time a single from Pluto gained steam, a bigger star hopped on the song and hogged some of Future’s spotlight: Drake on “Tony Montana,” T.I. on “Magic,” Diddy on “Same Damn Time,” Lil Wayne on “Turn On The Lights,” Kelly Rowland on “Neva End.”   

Even when Pluto’s success made Future a hot commodity, the music industry seemed more interested in milking the rapper for his ability to turn out catchy choruses to boost the careers of rappers who lack that facility. Future blessed Ace Hood with “Bugatti,” B.o.B with “Ready,” Rocko with “U.O.E.N.O.,” and piloted “Tapout” for Birdman’s first Rich Gang release. And conspicuously, Future only performed the hooks on those songs, without getting a chance to spit a verse. 

It may have been Future’s choice to sell hooks to other artists and clock out without getting a verse on the track. But that happening over and over perpetuated the idea that he was less a rap star than the hook guy of the moment, cranking out radio-friendly choruses much as T-Pain had a few years earlier without much of an eye on album sales or an artistic legacy. Hit collaborations with Rihanna and then-girlfriend Ciara cemented his reputation as a starry-eyed romantic, a self-taught R&B savant who came into his melodic facility via rapping in AutoTune. Drake had destigmatized the idea of a rapper who sings more than a little on his records, but Drake’s guest verses were in demand along with his hooks. 

After the guest-filled Honest, perhaps Future realized that he’d maxed out on his capacity to play well with others. Over the course of the three mixtapes that followed, a total of three guest rappers show up. Future has always come up with distinctive flows for his verses, but aside from the often imitated cadences on “Karate Chop” and “Sh!t,” his flows rarely drew as much attention as his hooks. And on some early hits like “Magic,” Future was strangely soft-spoken and short on memorable lines. With guest-free songs like “Fuck Up Some Commas” and “March Madness,” however, fans finally started to get an earful of Future’s verses, and it only made them want more. In 2015, DJ Esco can mute the track for a bar in the middle of a verse, and the crowd will shout out the line on command. 

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A full-length project by Drake and Future has the potential to bring one of the stranger friendships in contemporary rap full circle. Future was one of the first up-and-coming artists who Drake gave a verse to as a newly minted A-lister in 2011, but Future took offense when Drake declined to attend a video shoot for “Tony Montana.” Drake selected Future as the opening act for a tour in 2013, but then temporarily dropped him from the tour after Future made seemingly disrespectful comments in an interview. Their next collaboration, “Never Satisfied,” was truncated to a 2-minute snippet when Drake decided he didn’t want his verse to appear on Honest. And when Future announced in July that his new album was almost ready, Drake called him up and asked to appear on DS2, with his “Where Ya At” verse becoming the album’s only guest appearance. 

The Drake/Future album, What a Time to Be Alive, is not exactly analogous to Watch The Throne—DS2’s numbers, though encouraging, are dwarfed by any album Drake has released. But the fact that those two rappers are on equal footing enough to make an entire project together speaks to just how far Future has come, after years of being one of the far smaller stars in Drake’s orbit. 

Whatever happens from here, 2015 will have been a special year for Future. Every now and again, a prolific rapper strikes that magic combination of quality and quantity, and it seems almost impossible how many great songs they can put out in one year. Lil Wayne did it a couple times, as did Gucci Mane, two artists that influenced Future’s music and his work ethic. And like those artists, Future now has a legacy and a unique place in the lineage of southern rap that comes from a tireless resilience in the face of career setbacks. Or, as Future says on “Where Ya At”: “The reason I’m here today, ‘cause I ain’t never gave up.”  

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Might as well get right to it. Yes, T-Pain can sing. He always could sing. He is, in my opinion, a very good singer. I would even encourage you to consider T-Pain an excellent singer. Your reasons for thinking he might not be an excellent singer, however, would not necessarily be unreasonable.

Some context: born and raised in Tallahassee, Florida, R&B/hip-hop rapper-singer-producer-writer T-Pain (born Faheem Rashad Najm) emerged at the tail end of 2005 as an enormously in-demand hitmaker with the success of guitar-driven finger-snapper "I'm 'n Luv (Wit a Stripper)." Urban crossover chart-stormers like 2007's "Buy You a Drank (Shawty Snappin')" came soon after, as did an endless string of high-adrenaline cameo vocals on tracks like Kanye West's "Good Life" and Chris Brown's "Kiss Kiss." During T-Pain's golden period of chart ubiquity — he contributed to five Top 10 Billboard Hot 100 singles of 2007 alone — he deliberately over-processed his vocals using Auto-Tune pitch correction software to manufacture an artifactual sci-fi effect. A trademark T-Pain vocal is one where he sounds soulful but tinny and machine-made, like George Lucas' C-3PO warbling his heart out at a karaoke bar.

T-Pain's computer-glitchy, digitally-rendered singing was hardly novel: after Peter Frampton, Roger Troutman made astonishing use of talkbox technology in the '80s, and artists ranging from Cher to Aerosmith to Daft Punk had dabbled in vocorder-esque cyborg pop by the early 2000s. T-Pain claims to have Auto-Tuned his croon because he wanted to differentiate himself ("I have a pretty weird voice. So I've been told"). But his audacious use of the technology triggered a sea of copycats. Like the rush to own a Rubik's Cube in the '80s, chart-seekers from Lil Wayne to Jamie Foxx to Ron Browz (remember him?) jumped on the Auto-Tune bandwagon with no-shame aplomb. The sound of vocals that seemed as if they were processed through a Speak & Spell device — or a squealing 56K-modem in start-up-mode — brushfire-rippled across broadcast radio.

The tide turned quickly, though, as public antipathy to Auto-Tune bubbled: Death Cab for Cutie's 2009 anti-Auto-Tune campaign that year became a minor rallying point, and Jay Z's foaming-at-the-mouth "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)" became the musical anthem and apex of said hateration. As Auto-Tune's most visible 21st Century practitioner and its supposed vector (he even consulted with Kanye on his Auto-Tune-drenched 2008 masterpiece 808s and Heartbreak), T-Pain became the scapegoat for a sonic practice that he popularized but didn't even get to invent.

T-Pain went into defensive mode, crafting tracks like "Ringleader" from his third studio album, 2008's Thr33 Ringz, in which our Auto-Tune enthusiast fights back against a legion of biters and haters. His reaction wasn't unjustified. In just a few years, his public image had gone from endearingly talented goofball to urban music's cornball class-clown. Witnessing the public disdain for his work, T-Pain allegedly went into a long depression from which he is just emerging.

We can now, in retrospect, look back on the mass derision over pitch correction software as an "Auto-Tune sucks" moral panic rooted in group anxieties and collective shame about inauthenticity in pop. It gathered its energy from fears about the perceived loss of analog tradition, as well as fears about the loss of traditional performance skills in talent-rich R&B. It also likely was shaded by an age-old anxiety that emergent musical technologies — such as the microphone, the drum machine, the synthesizer, and so on— will find a way to suck the soul out of music itself. Though opinions continue to vary widely, no such thing has happened yet.

To be fair, Auto-Tune was not the only culprit behind T-Pain's foreshortened mainstream career; image played a role as well. Early on, T-Pain emerged as an uncanny fusion of various R&B/hip hop predecessors: R. Kelly's raunchy polymath, Gerald Levert's smooth loverman, Lil Jon's energy-drink buckwildman, Tone Loc's wisecracking smart-ass, Cee-Lo's whimsical philosopher, Devin the Dude's blunted oddball and Shock G from Digital Underground's get-the-party-started buffoon. T-Pain's trademark look — top hat, sunglasses, frosted dreadlocks and shiny grills — suggested that he'd just come from an all-Jamaican cast of a Scott Joplin ragtime musical. It was easy to peg T-Pain as a trickster figure, dangerously flirting with neo-minstrelsy and flippant anti-intellectualism. (I remember hearing him once encourage kids to drop out of school). Was he no more than a walking stereotype? Especially given his penchant for inauthenticity in vocal processing, could we really take T-Pain seriously?

We can now look back at T-Pain's energetic mix of clever humor, irreverent abandon and charming sprightliness as one visible index of a groundswell of surging cultural poptimism that helped underwrite the renewed mass "hope" that resulted in the 2008 Obama presidency. (For better or worse, Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" and Beyoncé's "Single Ladies," among other songs, were also indexes of that surging, visually-aided poptimism. And DJ Khaled's motivational 2010 hit "All I Do is Win," co-featuring T-Pain, may have been a high point of good feeling produced in the relative aftermath of the election).

As the national mood started to shift and sour in the years that followed the 2008 economic crash, aspects of mainstream R&B eventually became increasingly dour, and morphed into introspective, moody and confessional sounds defined by post-backpack Kanye, late-night-confessional Drake and melancholic crooners like The Weeknd and Frank Ocean. Even by 2011, there was much less space in the culture for an apparently shamelessly cartoonish figure who didn't seem to take himself seriously. T-Pain reluctantly receded: his fourth studio album Revolver went no higher than #28 on the charts.

What a shame that anti-Auto-Tune sentiment has more or less endured (at very least it's seen in many circles as a joke), if only because it's meant that T-Pain's enormous skills as a producer, songwriter, arranger and performer have gone under-recognized.

While critics saw his use of Auto-Tune as a vocal crutch, I've always thought of it more as a sonic condiment, a kind of hot sauce that allowed him to sprinkle his tracks with generative tone colors. Take a listen to those sardine-packed, doo-wop harmonies on the musically-rich "Freeze." Or the catchy, yearning four-note hook of "Buy U a Drank." It became 2007's highest selling mastertone, given its piercing, high-pitched sonority. (Few artists sold as many ringtones/mastertones as T-Pain in his classic period, and for good reason). In spite of, or maybe because of, the digital processing of his vocals, I have a fondness for T-Pain's sonorous tenor. I appreciate his grab bag of solid melismatic runs. He's no Luther, but he's hardly a slouch either.

T-Pain's techno-feelingful soul may have been a musical analogue to our oughties obsession with haptic communications technologies like the smartphone and the tablet, as well as our increasing interest in post-production technologies like Photoshop and image filters. Why present the un-retouched real if the highly processed version of the real is so much more exciting to consume? With the benefit of hindsight, I think T-Pain may have been giving us something we could feel — a new way of thinking about texture and tactility in the context of digital technologies.

Now that we have some distance from the oughties, it's not hard to see that there were three main camps of urban music producers in that decacde. First, there were mainstays who more or less racked up hits throughout the decade: Jermaine Dupri, Timbaland, The Neptunes, will.i.am, Ne-Yo, Kanye, R. Kelly, etc. Then there were producers whose studio innovations mostly and roughly made an impact in the first half of the decade: Lil Jon, Scott Storch, Outkast, Rich Harrison. And then you had producers who made their mark predominantly in (and beyond) the second half of the decade: Polow Da Don, Jim Jonsin, Stargate, Bryan Michael Cox and Ryan Tedder.

Clearly, T-Pain as producer belongs to the second half of the 2000s — he drew on the post-crunk, post-bling, post-9/11 landscape to craft his unique and colorful version of the street scene. I can remember hearing his songs for the first time in an Atlanta nightclub in 2007, and not being particularly fond of the sparseness of the beats. I've since learned to re-hear T-Pain. What I love about his work now is its deliberate minimalism — the way his tracks breathe (through the use of strategic pauses and stops) and the way they engage unusual sonic and textural colors. Designed as an amalgam of several then-popular snap tracks, "Buy U a Drank" remains a stunning mix of filtered samples, synthesizer effects, loud-ass finger snaps, stuttering 808 beats and last-trimester pregnant pauses. "I'm 'n Luv (Wit a Stripper)" is equally spare: it's little more than a morse code beat, acoustic guitar, panned vocals, artificial claps and tinny video game effects. My favorite T-Pain production, "Chopped N Skrewed," reproduces the Quiet Storm chord progressions from Janet Jackson's "I Get So Lonely," and welds them to hopscotching beats, glitched-out vocals, Rhodes-like synth drooling and a series of campy, comic serial narratives about love-gone-wrong. It's a masterclass in production, writing and arrangement.

I also love the way T-Pain managed to render an immersive lifeworld through lyrics alone. Listening to his work, you're thrown into a universe of raunchy strip clubs, even raunchier sex ("Yo Stomach"), an endless parade of shawties, proud shout-outs to branded products like Oakley shades, Grey Cadillacs, Minicoops, Apple Bottom jeans and free-flowing Patron, to say nothing of T-Pain's parade of farcical alter-egos like Teddy Penderazdoun and Teddy Verseti. It's also a startling (and possibly troubling) universe in which semi-desperate men look to start committed relationships in stripclubs, romantically pursuing female bartenders and poledancers.

What makes T-Pain's ability to produce this virtual world even more startling is that he must be a great fiction-writer: born and raised Muslim, he's been married to his Christian wife Amber since 2003 (he's admitted to cheating on her, and he also was sued for unpaid child support for a baby he allegedly had outside of wedlock); together, they have three children. Far from menacing or reckless, T-Pain actually comes off as an endearing "aw, shucks" romantic on tracks like "I'm Sprung" and "Bartender."

T-Pain's work is also just as contemplative and introspective as it is extroverted. 2006's "Going Through a Lot," from his debut Rappa Turnt Sanga, mines themes of personal stress and psychological burden; it deserves comparison with songs on Gnarls Barkley's St. Elsewehere, also released the same year. On his 2007 sophomore release Epiphany, he sings about HIV on "Suicide" and he comically delves into rage on "Church." And at a time in which music was becoming increasingly globalized (think Barbados' Rihanna, Norway's Stargate), T-Pain's late oughties hits were defined by an alternative GPS impulse in that they lyrically focused on local, regional or extremely site-specific environments: finding love in the southern strip club, finding love in the recording studio ("Studio Luv) or combing through the vicissitudes of early life in Florida ("Ridge Road.")

Quiet as it's kept, T-Pain's work directly or indirectly inspired an entire pop landscape from Kanye, to Tricky and The-Dream, to Cash Money, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Chief Keef, Future, Fetty Wap, Bryson Tiller and so many others. In a moment where Adele's blockbuster success clearly demonstrates that late oughties' Auto-Tune didn't manage to kill off the demand for powerhouse vocals, can we finally admit that T-Pain's artistry deserves to be considered much more than just a guilty pleasure? Let's buy him a drink.

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