If you're somewhere between the ages of 18-34, there’s likely a 99% chance that you’ve spent at least a few late nights dancing to T-Pain’s auto-tune club bangers. The Southern singer-songwriter is a bona fide hitmaker who’s remained a mainstay of popular music for nearly a decade. But after four years since the release of his last studio album, T-Pain suddenly finds himself cast on the outside looking in, while new artists continue to adapt the robotic style that he is renown for popularizing. Now fresh off the release of his first single from his upcoming album (set to drop this fall), T-Pain is determined to reintroduce himself to weary listeners and prove that he’s still got it. Maxim recently caught up with T-Pain after his headlining performance at Budweiser’s Made in America concert in New York City.
So you’ve been pretty quiet for a few years now. Your last studio album released was rEVOLVEr and as signified by the stylization of the title, promised an evolution. Some critics felt it still sounded too similar to your work in the past, but then last October you surprised everyone with an auto-tune–less NPR Tiny Desk concert. Is that closer to the evolution you were trying to achieve before?
No, I mean that was already normal since I was able to sing before that album came out [laughs]. Nah, the evolution was something that wasn’t as noticeable as I thought it would be, but that was because it was inside of me—my mindset. I matured as a person. And that’s what I was calling my evolution, and I didn’t really realize that you… you can’t really tell if you’re looking from the view outside of things, because you’ve only seen me a few times and it’s on camera or on stage where I’m putting on the show. Maybe I needed a reality show to show people how I changed, but I’m sure that would’ve been scripted too, just like everything else [laughs]. But nah, it was an internal evolution that I went through.
Since you were an innovator and almost exclusive user of auto-tune, people were pretty shocked to hear you sing without it. The show however, was very well received. Did you feel that you almost had to prove to your detractors that you could sing without audio manipulation?
Nah, I didn’t care. It wasn’t a big deal for me [laughs], because I already knew I had nothing to prove. It was just like, you know… my songs are good. Auto-tune doesn’t make the song, as you can see by a lot of songs that are trying to come out now—not doing a good job.
It’s interesting because I’ve read numerous comments suggesting that you should drop the auto-tune act and sing naturally. Has the thought of switching your style permanently, or maybe just for an album or two, ever crossed your mind?
I was actually pitching an acoustic album to my label before the NPR show, and they just flat out didn’t think that I could do it. I don’t think anybody in my label had heard me sing before. But it’s weird because I never use auto-tune live, so I don’t know why people automatically thought I was lip-syncing or anything like that. And then after the NPR thing, the studio was like, “Okay, here’s an idea—why don’t we do an acoustic album?” … Like don’t try to make it your idea now! [laughs] But yeah, I pitched it long before that, but the confidence just wasn’t there for them, I guess.
Maybe sometime in the future.
Nah, it’s too late now [laughs]. Not a surprising thing anymore.
Last week you released your upcoming album’s first single, “Make That Shit Work.” It seems to be pretty popular so far— is this song your bid for that classic summer song that blows up all over the club and radio?
Oh god no. Not at all.
Are there different things coming?
There’s a lot more different things coming. That one was the label-pleaser. That was the one that the label was like, “Okay, you gotta make us some money at some point.”
That’s intriguing because your new album is called Stoicville: The Phoenix. With that subtitle, I assume that it signifies a rebirth of some sort. If “Make That Shit Work” was a label-pleasing song, what other types of tracks can we expect?
Tracks like “Stoicville,” the rap track that I put out that was basically airing out everything that happened over the past few years. Just new stuff—stuff that takes longer to write than “Twerk That Ass” and “Make That Shit Work” [laughs]. I can say from my personal opinion that it’s better music, or— actual music [laughs]. But you know, you gotta throw the label-pleasers out there and make them happy.
Of course, it’s a business.
Right. You know, so they can spend money on the rest of the shit that you’re gonna put out that they don’t care about. It just helps. The label-pleasers always help.
On the new single, Juicy J is a fairly big name to have featured. You also released a mixtape back in March that featured Lil Wayne, The-Dream, Bun B, Big K.R.I.T.,Yo Gotti. Are you surprised that these popular artists are still willing to work with you, or did you expect nothing less?
Oh no, that was a strategic move. I did a lot of shit for free back in 2009 [laughs], so those were old favors. They didn’t really have a choice. But nah, it’s not too surprising. I know who stayed down when I sat down, so you know it wasn’t surprising for me because I’m talking to those people every day.
And you can tell by listening from your set tonight that throughout the years you’ve had so many collaborations with so many big names. How do you want to keep that going – are there any new artists that you want to collaborate with that you admire?
Umm, not really. Because I feel like I don’t have my shit all the way together yet, so to bring someone else into that situation just seems like a terrible idea [laughs].
It’s got to be a personal project.
Did you find the creative process particularly challenging given your lengthy absence from the studio?
Well I was never absent from the studio, I just stopped putting out music. It wasn’t a big deal for me anymore. It became a job and I wasn’t passionate about it anymore. So I never was absent from the studio—I have three studios in my house, so I’m always around it, always in it. I just didn’t care about putting out label-pleasers anymore. There were making it a mandatory thing. “Put out the label-pleaser or we’re not putting out anything,” so I was just like "fuck it, I just won’t put out anything."
How has your record label, Nappy Boy Records, been doing?
Well I just changed it to Illuminappy Music Group, so that’s actually going really good.
That’s something you’re joining or that you created yourself?
No, I created that myself. It’s like a revamp of Nappy Boy Entertainment.
Any projects for Illuminappy that you’re working on besides you’re own?
We got Vantrease, the guy who was on-stage performing with me tonight. We just got Shay Mooney off to another label. It’s basically more of development label more than anything, ‘cause I don’t want to try to be a CEO and an artist. When I stop being an artist, then I’ll 100% concentrate on being a CEO of a label. But I’ve witnessed how that goes with different people and it never really works out. I don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s career when my shit ain’t even all the way together yet.
Each generation has their own style of music that they grow up with. Auto-tune is obviously a newer technique from the past 10-15 years or so. Do you think a younger version of yourself would enjoy listening to the music that you and other artists put out today?
Oh God no. God no [laughs]. I remember being into a different type of music. I mean even a mere five or six years ago you couldn’t pick two songs that sound alike on the radio, and now everything just sounds exactly the same. It’s getting real fucking redundant and very fucking annoying.
Do you feel that you contribute to that or do you differentiate yourself?
My music that I make, no I don’t contribute to that. But the label-pleasers… you know [shrugs shoulders]. I’d say 10% of what I do is contributing to that.
Was Cher the major influence on you, since she’s often recognized as the first to pioneer auto-tune?
Not when I heard her. She was the first person I heard use it, but the person who actually made me want to use it was Jennifer Lopez.
Yeah. She did it on “If You Had My Love,” that Darkchild remix. She did it there for like two seconds, but after I heard that I decided that I was going to use it.
Can you share any artists that will be featured on the new album?
I don’t have any yet. It’s really been a personal thing. I don’t let anybody in my studio and I don’t go to anybody else’s studio—I just work on it myself.