T-Pain Doesn’t Need Autotune (But He’ll Probably Go Back to Using it Anyway)

The king of the synthetic aria drops the processor and wows the crowd with his sweet pipes.
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The king of the synthetic aria drops the processor and wows the crowd with his sweet pipes.
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During the summer of 2004, you couldn’t escape the tuneful, computerized warbling of T-Pain and his ubiquitous hit “Buy U A Drank.” This was a time, remember, before Kanye West used auto-tune on “Love Lockdown” and before anyone had even considered auto-tuning the news.

When his first album, Rappa Turned Sanga, came out, T-Pain’s heavy use of pitch correcting was novel: Rather than an invisible tweak a pop star’s high notes, it was a stylistic choice, a way to intentionally remove warmth and timbre from the human voice. In the decade since, people have forgotten this, and for the past few years, T-Pain has been little more than a joke. His album is held up not as pioneering, but as an example of the decline of pop music: Singers singing to computers; kids listening to their computer singers.

This week, T-Pain showed up at NPR studios to do a tech-free set. His Tiny Desk Concert featured only the singer and a friend, Toro, on keys. What came out, stripped down versions of “Buy U A Drank” and “Drankin’ Partna,” would have done D’Angelo proud. T-Pain, let it be known, has a beautiful, well-pitched voice, and stands in a rarified group of pop stars who need no auto-tuning whatsoever.

Forgive the comparison, but T-Pain is Picasso. Every philistine who’s looked at one of Pablo’s cubist masterpieces and remarked, “My kid could do that!” is missing the point. Picasso could paint you a photo-realistic portrait better than anyone; it was his drive to innovate that pushed his art into experimental (to some, simplified) realms. So, too, then, with T-Pain. The dude could sing you Al Green covers note-for-note until your ears fell off; his search for a new sound led him to that chattering, metallic vocal style that now pervades the radio. So, yeah, he’s got that going on.

We doff our purple top hats to you, sir.

Photos by Helen Boast / Redferns via Getty Images