Not that T-Pain would ever be confused for an album artist, but one would have to imagine the poor critical reception of Thr33 Ringz stung a little. After all, 2008 was the year T-Pain asserted that he was the ringleader of pop music and we would all be forced to follow his lead for years to come… and yet the opposite happened. The album went Gold, but other than “Can’t Believe It” and “Chopped ‘n’ Skrewed” there’s not a memory to be had. It felt sloppy compared to Epiphany, and at the time Autotune was given a lot less slack than it is now. T-Pain became a scapegoat almost by default, and honestly rEVOLVEr arrives as a bit of a surprise.
That title is a confusing one; taken as the word it is, one would assume T-Pain sees himself back on the bottom, waiting for his turn back in the chamber. But the ‘evolve’ is notably emphasized in press materials and the album art, which means T-Pain would rather us assume he’s grown as an artist and become something much more than we once knew him as. That would be quite lofty expectations for any artist as pigeon-holed as Teddy is, but especially so when considering the (some would argue novelty) impact of hits like “Bartender” and “N Luv Wit a Stripper”. Does anyone really want T-Pain to grow as an artist, or simply recapture his ignoble magic?
Well, turns out that’s a moot point because rEVOLVEr is more of the same, very much so. You’re not even given a red herring to imagine an alternate reality where T-Pain is an R&B artist to be taken seriously, as T-Pain gives “Boom Boom Pow Pow” about 40 seconds of chorus and bridge before shouting “I’ve got money for these whores if you open up the door!” About a minute later, Lil’ Wayne opens his verse with the modest boast, “I go so hard they call me go so hard,” which is just maybe dumb enough to stick. And with that we’re off on another journey through T-Pain’s strange world.
For fans of his work it’s worth noting early that rEVOLVEr is a notable improvement from Thr33 Ringz, containing roughly the same amount of ups and downs as Epiphany did. There’s the charming silliness of “Default Picture” that details romantic Facebook and Twitter escapades, the simulated duet between Lily Allen and T-Pain, “5 O’Clock” (entirely based on a portion of Allen’s “Who’d Have Known”), and the straight up ignorance of “Mix’d Girl”. But there are also vapid club songs like “Bottlez”, “I Don’t Give a Fuk [sic]” and “It’s Not You” featuring Pitbull that aren’t going to do anything for people who don’t see those titles and immediately think, “oh, that song’s for me!”
Essentially, T-Pain’s career has reached that often inevitable moment for era-defining pop artists when they are viewed more as a novelty than an idol. He’s still capable of turning out the album cuts that will get those of us who have a soft spot for him to give the album a few inattentive spins because, I would contest, at the end of the day he’s a fairly talented songwriter. But his allegiance to the glitzy style of Florida club music that was so ubiquitous during his, Pitbull and Flo-Rida’s heyday has also grown to become a bit of a liability for him now, and his ability to pen humongous hits that transcend his Autotune, his region or his fanbase has noticeably declined.
All of this manifests in rEVOLVEr, an album that feels dated right as it hits the shelves, and professes no argument for its significance other than some big name features and producers. Sometimes songs can get by on star power and production, but the stuff here is not a collection of those songs, it’s merely a product of T-Pain spending three years in his studio pondering why he’s not in the center circle of the pop circus, kindly guiding us through our weekend benders and strip club tours. Unfortunately he came out of hiding firing blanks, leaving audiences without many options for our Flavor of the Year figurehead than the one we’d probably already chosen… on to the next one.