How seriously should we take this music? By “we” I mean both listeners and critics. Some, like Sean Fennessy understand its silliness, but still deem T-Pain’s sparse, two records worth of material worthy of paragraphical critique. But why T-Pain? Of all the popular artists on the airwaves he initially seems the most prone to novelty—the most likely to fade into the same collected bin of forgotten R&B artists such as Case, Ginuine, Jagged Edge, Joe, Kci & JoJo, Maxwell and Tyrese. His main claim to fame is the ubiquitous vocoder/talk box/Pro Tools effect (henceforth referred to as “talk box”, ‘cuz it sounds the most sexually appropriate). If you’ve only heard T-Pain’s radio hits, you’ll be led to believe he’s a one-trick pony, using this trademark effect as a cheap substitute to actual talent or as a cloying attempt to separate himself from the aforementioned forgottens.
This is what Jody Rosen, supposes in a recent Slate article—that T-Pain is another in a long line of R&B sex-addicts but with a slight vocal-tic twist. What most fail to notice, or admit, is that T-Pain is a consummate, at times quite innovative, producer (Kanye recently said he was the next R. Kelly). The Slate article wonders aloud why T-Pain is such a popular radio staple and Rosen’s “simplest” answer—that gullible consumers will snatch up any pop novelty record, especially one that “speaks to the [current technological] zeitgeist”—is downright insulting.
On Epiphany, the Florida-born, Tallahassee-repping singer, slightly expands upon his body-part obsessed persona with a strangely-placed AIDS track (“Suicide”) with T-Pain considering suicide after learning he might have contracted HIV by not wearing a rubber. Important context: before this he’s trying to get a chick just a little bit inebriated, ‘cause, in his words: “I know you wouldn’t do what you do unless your tipsy.” After that he’s channeling his Bang Bus fantasies by taking his girl onto the highway to have sex (“I done cleared out the backseat”, he assures). Like R. Kelly, T-Pain relishes in that fine line between in-on-the-joke ridiculousness and the borderline criminal (like the date-rape-ish “I know you ain’t feelin’ me / I promise that you take a sip of this you’ll be right here hearin’ me”). And like R. Kelly, and most of today’s most interesting hip-hop and R&B, it’s easy to ignore the insipidity of it all when the arrangements are so good. Epiphany is full of bright, vibrant and downright exciting production: “Church” is a fast-paced, vigorous club track with bongos, spikey guitars, rolling organs, and handclaps all arranged into a meticulous whole; “Put it Down” is little more than minimal, echoey synth notes reminiscent of a more restrained Timbaland; and the drums on “Backseat Action” sound like primal electro-techno sputtering beneath quiet wah-wah synths.
But as increasingly great as T-Pain is as a producer, don’t expect his lyrical priorities to change much. Clubbing, drinking, and admiring women are still his main obsessions, and his newest single, “Bartender”, with Akon (a hook-man’s dream), features all these in one. “69” is a strangely ebullient ode to the reciprocal sex position but seems almost anti-climatic after “Yo Stomach”, where T-Pain lavishes his attention on a six-packed-out abdomen. It’s so singularly focused, with T-Pain admitting, “it’s the reason that I’m singing this song / ‘cause I ain’t got nothing else to bust a nut on” that you kinda have to step back and admire the carnal tenacity of it all—which is what makes Epiphany one of the more exciting pop releases this year.
One of the frequently ignored aspects of Epiphany is T-Pain’s use of different aliases for his different vocals styles. Teddy Penderazdoun is the rapper, Teddy Verseti, the rocker, Teddy Pain the loverman, and good ‘ol T-Pain the talk-box wielding chorus man. It’s really odd, especially when T-Pain features himself, and in some caes, more than one version of himself, on one song. But what’s most surprising about Epiphany is that it really isn’t all that reliant on T-Pain’s too-often-mentioned signature talk-box. Almost half the album vocals are recorded with T-Pain’s not-all-that-otherworldly voice intact. The album only really falters on “Time Machine”, where “Tebunan Pedalofogus” turns the box up to 12 and sings about a past where “this music shit was more than business.” But business it is, and with two of the best singles of the year (“Buy U a Drank” and “Bartender”), and a prominent feature on the best single of the year, R. Kelly’s “I’m a Flirt (Remix)”, T-Pain does seem posed for more success than those other guys. He may even be worth the verbiage, too.