A Year of Lil Wayne: Remembering T-Wayne, the T-Pain Supergroup That Never Was
Here's a story about Auto-Tune and the 2008 zeitgeist.
Day 226: "He Rap, He Sang" – T-Pain and Lil Wayne, My Face Can't Be Felt, 2009
The story of Auto-Tune making its way to rap goes like this: In 1998, not long after software engineer Andy Hildebrand developed a technology to digitally correct the pitch of singers' voices, an intrepid producer named Mark Taylor found that technology in Pro Tools and turned it all the way up to zero (the most unnatural setting) on Cher's vocals for the song "Believe." The effect gave it the robotic feeling of a voice through a telephone, and the alien sound helped shoot the track up the charts.
"I remember thinking at the time 'This really is such a groundbreaking effect that doesn't come along every day,'" he told me in 2014, in an interview for Complex. He kept the tool a secret, demurring that it was a vocoder, but other producers began to stumble upon it. In 1999, Darkchild used it on a remix of Jennifer Lopez's "If You Had My Love." A teenage T-Pain heard the song and became obsessed with figuring out how to recreate the effect.
"I actually went to a bunch of hackers and a shitload of computer things like 'Guys, please tell me that this thing exists and Jennifer Lopez is not the only person with it,'" T-Pain told me, for that same Complex article. It took him years to track it down: "I literally went through every plug-in and every preset on the plug-in." But then he found it, and he made a bunch of hit songs, which in turn made him a punchline for most of the music industry—except for Lil Wayne, who, almost immediately, saw the brilliance in what T-Pain was doing.
By 2008, Wayne himself was at the forefront of the Auto-Tune revolution, his own song "Lollipop" joining T-Pain hits like "Buy You a Drank (Shorty Snappin')" and "I'm N Luv (Wit a Stripper)" atop the charts. Deeper in his catalog, Wayne was plowing through weird Auto-Tune experiments, letting the effect drench his vocals in a syrupy haze, his interests lying as much in pushing the technology to create weirder and weirder sounds as they once had in dropping the most tightly crafted bars. By the time Tha Carter III came out, Wayne was pretty much done with the rapid-fire, free-associative raps over sped up soul and skeletal southern drums that had defined his mixtape rise. Instead, he was noodling around in Auto-Tune, often off-key, making songs that sometimes barely even cohered. These experiments would go on to spawn basically an entire subgenre of modern trap. But at the time, they were widely understood to be just another offshoot of whatever the fuck it was that T-Pain was doing.
T-Pain and Wayne were the obnoxious vanguard that rappers like Jay Z took aim at with songs like "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)." But they were also rap's two biggest hitmakers, and they truly did not care what anybody had to say about the matter. Instead, they doubled down on the idea, teasing a joint project called T-Wayne (not to be confused with the rapper of the same name who had a viral Vine hit in 2015).
People were amped about T-Wayne: Even today a trawl through DatPiff will turn up more than a couple T-Pain and Lil Wayne combo mixtapes, including the cover above, for a compilation of loose tracks from each called The T-Wayne Show. Wayne and Pain teased the collab for months. A June 2008 MTV News article reported on the "supergroup," and Wayne was quoted as saying, "We both have the same energy. I don't sleep... He don't sleep. I play all day. He plays all day and all night. The connection is crazy. He loves to be creative, he loves to work; I love to create, I love to work. He really wants people to respect his rapping; I really want people to respect my harmonizing."
The T-Wayne collaboration as advertised never materialized, although as recently as 2015, T-Pain expressed interest in the idea. There were a few big singles—including "Got Money," DJ Khaled's "Welcome to My Hood," and Rick Ross's "Maybach Music 2"—but nothing tangible as a project. Still, the idea has always persisted in my head as the gold standard for what the 2008 zeitgeist should have been, and I think, like many fans, there is an unofficial version of the tape that lives in my head, bringing together all the collaborations. One of those is a song called "He Raps, He Sangs," which sounds like it might have been the intended intro for the project but instead ended up on a mixtape of tracks from Wayne's other big scrapped partnership with Juelz Santana, My Face Can't Be Felt (the original Wayne/Juelz project was supposed to be called I Can't Feel My Face).
The premise of the song is that T-Pain raps his ass off, and then Wayne sings his verse in Auto-Tune. Both of them do a great job with their respective parts: T-Pain details all the ways he'll shoot you before shouting out Wayne's "Lollipop" hook, and Wayne repays the favor by mentioning that he invented "bling bling" and then shoehorning in references to "I'm N Luv (Wit a Stripper)" and "Bartender," which he also uses as an opportunity to explain that he'll shoot you. He opens his verse by quipping, "It's the white cup dranker / baby I'm a trapper turned rapper turned sanger," which basically sums up 2008 Wayne, Auto-Tuned syrup fiend and T-Pain acolyte. Later on he jokes that "even the best say Weezy the best."
The fact that this song ended up as a throwaway on an obscure, questionably official mixtape is the bow on its oh-so-2008 existence: It should have been the beginning of a great album. Instead, it's the cornerstone of an album that only exists in our heads, a footnote in music history that explains entire swaths of music to come. Which, when you think about the fact that T-Pain spent this entire period masquerading as a magician/circus ringleader, makes it the greatest trick of all.
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- lil wayne
- He Rap, He Sang
- My Face Can't Be Felt
- The T-Wayne Show