All the way back in 2008, just three years after T-Pain’s Rapper Ternt Sanga made him into a radio-dominating superstar, you could see the writing on the wall for the rapper. No one could see it clearer than T-Pain himself: His trademark Auto-Tuned vocals went from a bracingly futuristic sonic innovation to an overused cliché in a matter of months. (He at least got a couple of good jokes about it into his “Karaoke” video.) When his sonically and thematically scattered 2011 album Revolver failed to turn things around, it seemed like his career might be coming to an end.
The pride of Tallahassee, Fla., spent his time since then refocusing and rebuilding his brand. Late last year he released a DJ Mustard-produced single, “Up Down (Do This All Day)” that quietly climbed nearly halfway up the Hot 100, and a video for the song that featured him sans dreadlocks and top hat, which had defined much of his visual identity. (He kept the outlandish sunglasses.) Over the past few months, T-Pain has been releasing more of the songs that he’s recorded since Revolver—there are hundreds—including a couple, “Look Like Him” and “Monotone,” that combine the darkly throbbing synthesizer sounds that have been bubbling up out of the underground club scene. They feature bracingly self-critical lyrics, revealing that the guy who made warbling robot voices into a radio-devouring phenomenon hasn’t stopped innovating.
His latest single, “Drankin’ Patna,” is a return to the joyful hedonism and bouncing strip club beats of his early hits, and it serves as a potent reminder of exactly what the pop world was missing during his time away. In the midst of his Drankin’ Patna tour, and somewhere in the process of finishing up his fifth solo album, tentatively entitled Stoicville: The Phoenix, he spoke to EW about where he’s been and where he’s going.
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