During his Swanita Tour, Smino would perform a cover version of T-Pain’s “Chopped N Skrewed,” a classic from his catalog of greatest hits. Luckily for Smino, his homage to a living legend didn’t go unnoticed, which led to a surprise appearance from T-Pain during Smino's tour stop in Atlanta. Despite performing on crutches, Smino had the crowd in complete awe with the magnetism of Magneto in an Apple Store. But when the Tallahassee maestro graced the stage, voices rose to their highest frequency. That's... that's T-Pain!
Nostalgia washed over every fiber of my being. For a moment, it felt like being back in 2008. Back when the world was ruled by an Auto-Tuned singer with an appetite for alcohol but who wasn’t an alcoholic, a lover of sex and women, but far from lascivious and lecherous—in Teddy Pain’s world, vices sounded like holy indulgences and bartenders became angels.
There was a period of time between 2005 and 2011 where Pain could do no wrong; he was a modern Midas. But after JAY-Z delivered “D.O.A.,” nothing was quite the same. The aftermath was a slow decline for someone previously thought to be musically immortal.
As much time had passed since the era of Pain, though, to once again be in his presence brought all the old feelings back.
Smino’s concert was in May, the beginning of T-Pain’s well-orchestrated return. In July, GQ published an article titled: "T-Pain's Acoustic Medley of His Greatest Hits Might Make You Cry." The writer isn’t selling hyperbole baiting for clicks, but honestly reacting to hearing Pain sing like a man blessed with God-given gold for vocal chords. With no Auto-Tune, he abandoned the signature pitch assistant and the results were stunning. Pain can sing, and his hits mashed up is like a smorgasbord of unforgettable jams.
Like his time on stage with Smino, I watched as the internet reacted with eyes wide and tongues hanging. The medley brought the resurrection of his 2014 NPR Tiny Desk, another stellar live performance. Announcing a small acoustic tour as the cherry on top created a buzz much bigger than we've seen surrounding Teddy in years. Atlanta didn’t get any dates, but Pain received rave reviews for his headlining performances.
When I recently wrote about how the internet has provided artists with opportunities to always keep their windows open, T-Pain didn’t initially come to mind, but he might be the best example—a shining star who has slowly started to shine again after a period of dimming. Look no further than his appearance on Smino’s “Anita” remix, where his melodies are infectious as ever, or 6LACK's "One Way," a sensual, soft-yet-sexy quiet storm cut perfect for Pain and his melodic rappa-ternt-sanga artistic offspring.
2017 has been a gradual reintroduction for T-Pain, and it has all led up to Oblivion, his fifth studio album and first full-length project in six years.
Despite the dark and melancholy artwork, the intro, “Who Died,” is drenched in joy. It is a thank you letter to those who stayed down, a confirmation of how well he’s doing despite the long hiatus, and two erected middle fingers to anyone who denounced him as done. The vocals are lifted with the wings of positivity and the horn section blares with opulence—the kind of horns JAY-Z would use to kick off his album.
While Pain doesn't kick off the album sounding like an artist struggling with self-identity, unfortunately, this isn’t definitive throughout. “Straight” sounds like Teddy doing his best Rae Sremmurd impersonation. “Goal Line,” the Blac Youngsta-featured first single, is a rap record that should have been left on the cutting room floor. “That’s How It Go” is a better rap effort, but even the JAY-Z “Show Me What You Got” horns barely raise the record to a passable standard. The same can be said about “2 Fine,” a Ty Dolla $ign-assisted filler song that serves no purpose beyond a novelty joint from two melodic masterminds who don’t provide any of the musical mastery that they are known for.
T-Pain isn’t an artist who fits in. His entire rise was based on how unique his sound was compared to the climate. Oblivion's best moments are when Pain is at his most comfortable or his most daring. “Textin' My Ex” could easily be a leftover from Epiphany or Thr33 Ringz, a compliment to how the song captures so much of what is beloved about Pain’s style of everyman R&B. “She Needed Me” is another example of a familiar template tweaked and revamped for modern ears but nostalgic enough for old fan gravitation.
“May I” is an early favorite, a curveball concept with a rapping Teddy utilizing the Talkbox tool with the same excellence as Auto-Tune. When it comes to vocal modification, there are few singers with the natural knack to mix sounds up with pleasant results. Absolute R&B allure is ushered in on “The Comeback,” a crossover between T-Pain and Ne-Yo that would have caused mountains to topple in 2008. “Cee Cee From DC” is oddly placed, but a nice change of pace with Wale. For an artist with so much range, every step beyond what’s expected will either be well-received or a complete failure, but far too often what’s unexpected on the album is also the most enjoyable.
Oblivion is a good re-introduction, but it’s lengthy. 17 tracks equate to over an hour of music and far too much is fat. Yet, often times, just hearing T-Pain rap and sing is a joyous experience. He’s always been an artist who gives you music for after the work hours are over, for when you're with your girlfriend or texting an ex, for the strip club or the route to get a drink. The basis of his musical landscape is to romanticize the mundane. It’s relatable because it's ordinary, events that you will likely live out time and time again, but T-Pain applies the necessary textures to make life and love far more enjoyable than they are in real time.
Naming the final song “Second Chance (Don’t Back Down)” is likely a nod to his current career position. He doesn’t explicitly state it, but there’s a sense that he’s aware that this release represents his rise from the ashes. What I like most about Oblivion is how it completes Pain’s contractual obligation to RCA, a label he has blamed for certain missteps in his career. This album is a landmark for the second wind of his career, but what’s most important is what he does from here. T-Pain is now the master of his universe, a genius in his own right who has dominated the world once. Oblivion isn’t perfect, but it is good enough to make me believe that he can dominate once again.
Everyone deserves a second chance, but what will you do when it’s been gifted to you? T-Pain is back, more than a decade after his arrival, and his window of opportunity is wide open. For the second time, I believe in my hearts of hearts that he is here to stay.