The year was 2007. The most popular player in the NFL was charged with a felony for his involvement in a dogfighting ring, a fiery young senator by the name of Barack Obama was prepping to run for the White House, I had just graduated high school and there was not a bigger name in music than T-Pain.
T-Pain was so popular, the man could sneeze and fart at the same time and it would end up as the hook of a chart-topping Chris Brown song. In 2014, if you say the words Auto-Tune you'll likely get an eye roll or a slap upside the head, but back then, it was the sound and T-Pain was the guy. I mean some of the most memorable hooks from that era are courtesy of T-Pizzle. "All I Do Is Win" is still played at every sporting event ever, and you can't step foot in a senior prom without hearing "Low." But T-Pain was so good with Auto-Tune, and so good so often, that he inspired a legion of copycats and the sound, and by extension T-Pain himself quickly ran out of favor. There was a time when you couldn't go ten seconds without hearing Auto-Tune, so naturally, you couldn't go ten seconds without someone telling you how much they hated it. Jay Z made a song called "D.O.A (Death Of Auto-Tune)." Death...he literally wanted Auto-Tune to die, and he largely got his wish. Like Pogs, Pokemon and Tomagotchi's, people dropped Auto-Tune as fast as they had picked it up.
Fair or not, T-Pain suddenly became one of the most hated men in music, and nobody, not even the guy who coined "No homo," can survive in that hostile environment. Even before we had Twitter, where generating and connecting with hate for a person is as easy as a click of a button, people rallied their contempt for T-Pain and the record sales showed it. In 2007, Pain had three number one hits in "Bartender," "Buy U a Drink" and "Low," the last of which went platinum seven times. "Low" was T-Pain's most successful endeavor, but it was also his last. Since then, whether it was his own song or someone else's, Pain never again reached number one. Of his next 50 guest features, only one even reached the top five ("Blame It"). While you could make the argument it ended right there for T-Pain, you could officially call him dead after his 2011 flop, Revolver. Pushed back for literally years, the album sold a mere 34,000 first week copies, a precipitous drop from his last album, Thr33 Ringz, which moved almost 150,000 units in the first week. By the time 2011 rolled around it appeared as if the world was done with Auto-Tune and the last grains of sand in T-Pain's hourglass of fame had fallen.
The year is 2014. Barack Obama has aged (considerably), Michael Vick went to jail, made a comeback and is on his third team, I am closer to 30 than 20, and were are in the first real stages of a T-Pain Renaissance.
It might not be crazy to some of you, but for those of us who lived through the first Auto-Tune era, the notion of T-Pain resurgence is almost laughable. When I said he was the most hated man in music, I wasn't kidding. By 2010 people hated T-Pain; he was a punch line, the answer to a trivia question in the making, not an artist. I never lost faith, though. I always thought there was something more to him that what people saw. Sure, Auto-Tune was (and is) used, by in large, to cover up a lack of talent with something catchy and easily digestible (see Lil Wayne). However, with Pain, I always felt there was more musicality to how he used it. Sure his voice was altered, but the man still had to create harmonies and melodies. You can't just grab an Auto-Tune and a keyboard and turn out number ones.
Plus, while his music wasn't Chopin's Nocturne, it was still fun as hell to listen to. T-Pain is the kind of guy who can go on an Adult Swim show, throw up and fart on the mic, and make you laugh. His music reflects that. He has a charmingly quirky personality and it makes his work sound fun; you don't really give a fuck if what you are listening to is "real" because you are enjoying yourself. I want to interview Nas, but I want to get a beer with T-Pain. To this day, there are T-Pain songs that stay in my rotation - when I got that first kiss from that girl, "I'm Sprung" was on repeat the whole train ride home—because they are fun as hell to listen to and, at the end of the day, fun music never gets old.
It seems weird to write it, but T-Pain created timeless songs that were written off by the same people who are now listening to Rich Homie Quan, Future, and Young Thug. Without T-Pain, those guys voices would only be altered by the static in the McDonalds Drive Thru speaker. Without T-Pain, Kanye might not have made 808s & Heartbreak. In retrospect, T-Pain was ahead of his time.
And yet, his time seems to be coming again.
I first noticed it on his recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert. The internet is not a nice place, and it's even worse if you were ever once famous. Yet, when I look at the comments on YouTube, a surprising amount of them are positive. The same goes for Twitter. On a medium where people are careless and cruel more often than not (especially on an easy target like a "washed up" Auto-Tune singer or anyone named Drake), you will have no trouble finding positive tweets. Where five years ago there was a community and uniting hate for T-Pain, now, the same community seems to be rallying around him. People want him to succeed as badly they wanted him to fail a mere three albums ago. Maybe it's because Auto-Tune has been given new life through trap, or maybe it's because "Low" isn't on the radio every two seconds, but I'd like to think it's for a different reason; T-Pain is finally showing people what I have been saying about him for years.
Underneath the Auto-Tune, there is a real artist. One with talent, personality, and a unique skill set who makes music I really enjoy. On his new song, arguably the best most musical effort (aside from "Phantom") of his career, "Stoicville," he shows it. No Auto-Tune needed, just T-Pain bearing his soul and the result is an engaging, compelling listen that will have you in his corner. It would appear that T-Pain has people ready to love T-Pain again.
I don't know what the future holds for Mr. Tallahassee, I don't know if we've seen a career like his before. Seriously, what other artist has had a trajectory like Pain? Is there another artist who was huge, then largely disliked, then later beloved again? It's crazy to think about the quirky, hook guy from 2007 as a credible, enthralling artist, but as we start to peek ahead to 2015, I think he has to be up there on your Must Watch list. Will we get a new T-Pain or the same one we got sick of before Obama's first term? I'm not sure, but the winds are shifting. It feels like the world is ready to love T-Pain again.
Or maybe just love him for the first time...