In a performance for NPR's Tiny Desk concert series on Wednesday, T-Pain proved to the world that he's more than just a human ringtone. "This is weird as hell for me," he told the audience before ripping into a rendition of "Buy U a Drank" without Auto-Tune. The video of the performance has already racked up more than 3 million views, mainly because people are so surprised to hear how great the singer's voice sounds without the digital effect that has become his calling card.
Auto-Tune was first popularized byCher's 1999 hit "Believe." However, T-Pain is largely considered the "King of Auto-Tune." His vibe has always aped the digitized vocals of 70s funk legend Roger Troutman and 90s New Jack Swing singer Teddy Riley, who used an older tool called the Vocoder to make their pitches warble. The Florida Rappa Ternt Sanga found immense success with his robotic-sounding singing in the mid-2000s. In an incredible run, he featured as a guest on 224 popular songs, won Grammys for both best R&B Performance and Best Rap Song, and sold more than 2.3 million ringtone units of "Buy U a Drank" in 2007. However, his popularity inspired numerous clones who tried to make hits using Auto-Tune, which lead artists like Christina Aguilera, Jay-Z, and Death Cab For Cutie to speak out against the tool's homogenizing effects. The backlash caused T-Pain to become a punching bag for everyone who was sick of Auto-Tune dominating the pop charts.
At T-Pain's Tiny Desk concert, the audience laughed nervously before he started to sing without his favorite accoutrement, perhaps because they expected disaster. But why would T-Pain take the Tiny Desk challenge if he didn't have the singing chops? He's not stupid. It should be no surprise that he actually has a pretty good voice. And while the collective internet is freaking out about this revelation, anyone who's ever seen T-Pain perform live should know that he's always been more man than machine.
Although the NPR-listening world might not know it, T-Pain has performed without Auto-Tune before. Not only that, but he puts on a hell of a live show, complete with some synchronized dance moves and some microphones straight out of a 90s Nickelodeon show. And this isn't the first time that he's performed without Auto-Tune upon request. In November of last year, he came on Sway Calloway's Sway in the Morning radio show and sang a snippet of "Buy U a Drank" with a cold, silencing doubters who attributed his musical skill to his favorite studio tool.
However, that instance was too brief to give much of an idea of how his songs might be impacted by a change in tone. The Tiny Desk version, though, provides a totally different context for understanding T-Pain's art. In the past, he's referred to himself as the Strip Club King and has made a career out of his love for Patron, but songs like "Drankin' Patna" turn melancholy when they're almost-acapella. When they're being sung so earnestly, you almost, almost forget that lyrics like "she's got me so deep in freakin' love" are terrible. Deprived of thumping bass and delivered like a confessional, others like, "I'm so gone on patron, I don't even know how I'm getting home," go from party anthems to something not dissimilar to Bukowski's poetry. The character of T-Pain--someone who seemingly spends all his time in the club getting faded as fuck and blowing all of his money "tryna see what's up" with a girl--seems really depressing when you're not being distracted by overproduction. Dude seems kinda lonely, and it seems like he needs some new hobbies.
According to a preview for his upcoming All Things Considered interview, T-Pain's about to turn 30. The Tiny Desk performance was in anticipation of his forthcoming greatest hits album. Hopefully, it marks a turning point for the singer. Originally, the Auto-Tune sound was what helped make him a star. But now that every rapper under the sun has experimented with it, and Kanye West made a whole album revolving around it, its seems natural for T-Pain to drop the Auto-Tune and start showcasing his other, underappreciated skills.
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