0. In medias res
Humor has long been used as a powerful cover for disseminating a serious message. Take, for example, this moment from T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s long-promised and never-delivered collaborative victory lap T-Wayne. Following an introduction from T-Pain in which he times a line to end at the same time a sample of the Oompa Loompa song from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory so that it goes “this is what we — doompety do”, the Auto-Tune forefather claims “You think I’m wack, but one day, you’re gon’ see.” It’s the most on-the-nose a rapper has been since Future’s “Tried to make a pop star, and they made a monster” from his world-conquering DS2. And in this instance, calling T-Pain, a rapper would be correct, as he delivers the line following one of the most intense rapping efforts of his career. What T-Wayne was promised as — two artists using Auto-Tune for separate purposes and stepping into each other’s worlds — ended up as much that as it is a fascinating exploration into what the commercial side of an experimental phase would sound like.
I. Setting the stage
The late 2000s in retrospect appear as a liminal time in music’s commercial prospects: in-between the ringtone era’s excesses and before streaming upended the way sales are calculated and made. T-Pain was a force in the former, while Lil Wayne was the only artist of this period to break the million-in-a-week sales mark with his album Tha Carter III. Individually, each released tracks that made their way to everywhere from school dances to exclusive clubs, from hipster DJ sets to top-40 stations. Together, they notched a pair of Billboard top-10 and double-platinum singles with “Got Money” from Wayne’s aforementioned album and “Can’t Believe It” from T-Pain’s 2008 effort Three Ringz; in the video for that single, Wayne sports a “T-WAYNE” shirt, one of the most visible monuments to the album’s speculative hype.
This hype came not from the idea of a crooner and top-of-their-game lyricist being novel — see Jay Z and R. Kelly’s tepidly received collaborative double The Best of Both Worlds and Unfinished Business from the early 2000s as a predecessor — but that this pairing knew how to make ubiquitous pop songs, and a whole album of this would promptly dominate the charts. Nearly a decade has passed since word first got out, and the landscape of rap and pop (sometimes a redundant phrase) has become less saccharine and warped, from the Soundcloud influences in pitch altering to trap’s dark ambient streak. T-Pain is a seer and Lil Wayne a timeless talent; both, however, have anachronistic elements in having peaked so young and so brightly. Thus, T-Wayne runs the risk of sounding intrusive instead of a welcomed guest who arrived oh-so-late. Luckily, both performers understand the caveat of attaching high stakes to the album, and as such, coast gleefully.
II. The influencer-influencee ouroboros
“808s & Heartbreak got me drinking extra lean”
— Lil Wayne, “Breathe”
“Breathe” is probably the Rosetta Stone of the album, comprised of infinitely intertwining threads with some branching into space and others doubling back upon themselves. First is the beat, immediately recognizable from its opening whining synth as what would ultimately form the backbone to Nicki Minaj’s shit-talk stomper “Did It on ‘Em”, over which Lil Wayne slurs through three verses, two bridges, and one hook before ceding control to the metallic clarity of T-Pain. Next is the 808s reference, an album that would not exist without T-Pain and virtually all of contemporary hip-hop is a descendant of. This dates T-Wayne as an album that appreciated Kanye West’s subtle masterwork before most did, but the truly impressive dating here is in T-Pain’s verse, when he claims “I can’t hear you like I got on Dr. Dre headphones” — the first of these now-omnipresent products came out in late 2008, around the time of the purported T-Wayne sessions and before they became cultural touchstones.
III. Is it art?
Those pop instincts shared by the two I mentioned before? They’re here, yes, but in short bursts a la genius that simply can’t be contained. But as a collection of potential chart-toppers, T-Wayne falls unfortunately short. “Listen to Me”, for example, tries its hardest to be this album’s answer to Tha Carter III’s battle cry “A Milli”, but lacks the quotables. The overarching theme of most other tracks, however, is that they simply seem incomplete. Take “DAMN DAMN DAMN”, which features each harmonizing in Auto-Tune and repeating “Woah” and “Damn” ad infinitum. This goes on for five minutes; most falter in that they are, instead, too brief.
The track that does stand out, though, is “Waist of a Wasp”. A radio-ready hook complete with its own self-contained language – “Got the waist of a wasp and the ass of a horse” becomes “Got the waiss of a wass and the ass of a hoss” in T-Pain’s capable hands — is buoyed by double-entendres (“Which one you like, butter or syrup?”) and charming devotionals (“‘Cause I promise in the Sidekick you got your own folder”) in the verses. The beat is smooth and luxurious and would fit well on top-40 rotations in 2017 as well as it would have in its intended time.
IV. Time is undefeated
When it comes to collaborative releases that never see the light of day, one or both artists usually stay silent or make excuses while the public begins to lose interest. But not for T-Wayne — the reasons given by T-Pain for its unfinished state were always backed up by fact, and the duo’s chart dominance meant that a segment of fans would always clamor for the album. Sadly, the finished result is one that feels unfinished even after all these years, and that T-Wayne’s greatest legacy will be that even after hearing it, we will still be left with our imaginations to do the heavy lifting.