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Of monsters and men: An ode to T-Pain

staff note

When I think of happiness, I think of T-Pain. I think of being eight and whirling around on rented quad skates to “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” at my hometown roller rink. I think of Wendy’s drive-through runs with my high school friends, “Bartender” blaring through our shoddy car speakers. But when I tell people that I think “Drankin’ Partna” is one of the best love songs of our generation (yes, I will die on this hill) my argument is usually not taken seriously. 

In those moments, and even in writing this, I feel the need to point people to T-Pain’s widely-acclaimed Tiny Desk concert or his The Masked Singer performance of Gavin DeGraw’s “I Don’t Wanna Be” as proof of his musical legitimacy. I feel compelled to bring up his endearingly-enthusiastic Twitch streams or the time he tweeted about his nightly routine of watching cat GIFs with his wife.

Sometimes, having this protective instinct over the Florida native feels ridiculous. T-Pain, short for “Tallahassee Pain,” is a Grammy-award winning artist with a string of hits and career longevity that many musicians would envy. Hailing from Florida myself, I know first-hand the number of kids who dream of getting out but never get the chance. There are certainly plenty of people more in need of a champion than T-Pain, but as the musician himself put it in an interview with The New Yorker, “Yeah, I can buy s—t. But I want people to like me, too! God damn!”

The maligning of T-Pain is by no means uncharted territory. Many culture writers have detailed his history with Auto-Tune, inarguably the most contentious part of his career. In the early 2000s, he became known as a pioneer for his creative, studied use of Auto-Tune on his debut album “Rappa Ternt Sanga,” attracting hip hop heavyweights like Lil Wayne and Kanye West to follow suit. 

Within a few years, however, the industry turned on Auto-Tune — and on its ringleader. In 2009, Jay-Z released “Death of Auto-Tune,” a single that disparaged the trend of artists using Auto-Tune “as a crutch.” The track wasn’t aimed at T-Pain directly, but he wound up becoming the butt of the hip hop world’s jokes and disrespect for the past decade anyway. Last year, he cancelled a tour due to low ticket sales. When he asked to work with Future, the “Mask Off” rapper’s brother reportedly confronted him at a Thanksgiving fundraiser, saying “My brother would never work with you. F— you and everything you stand for.” 

Honestly though, I don’t want to talk about how T-Pain became a joke. I want to talk about how we made him a monster. 

If you are not hip to the goings-on of Fox reality television, the premise of The Masked Singer is that low-level celebrities perform in costumes that mask their identity while a panel of judges (that inexplicably includes Robin Thicke) guesses who they are.

In 2019, on the show’s first-ever episode, a plush-costumed figure later revealed to be T-Pain stated “I am the Monster, because that’s what the world labeled me.” 

He won the season by performing “out-of-character” songs like Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” and the aforementioned Gavin DeGraw hit. After his victory, many media outlets called this a “comeback” for T-Pain, a new start now that he proved he could “actually” sing. 

The problem with this notion is that T-Pain was “actually singing” the whole time. His Tiny Desk concert came out nearly five years before the Masked Singer began. His first albums contain plenty of songs with his unadorned vocals. Many have suggested that if T-Pain simply stopped using Auto-Tune, people would respect him more, which implies that it was his own individual creative choices that made him a “monster.” I disagree. 

As author Jeffrey Jerome Cohen puts it in his book, “Monster Culture,” “A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals.’” Monsters, hybrid creatures whose bodies defy categorization, are dangerous because their inherent liminality challenges our set notions of what is “normal” or “good.” They exist to disrupt, which is simultaneously terrifying and fascinating. 

T-Pain’s use of Auto-Tune was disruptive — and ultimately reviled — because he didn’t employ it to sound good. He threatened a preconceived notion of what makes songs successful. But other artists have used Auto-Tune without being seen as monstrous — what makes T-Pain different? 

Here’s my take: his biggest hits, from “Bartender” to “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper)” to “Low”, are club songs. He is so casual, so forthright, and for many of us, that is terrifying. His admissions of being “gone on Patron” and trying to find love at a bar are moments a lot of people relate to, but would never discuss publicly. We spend a lot of time ensuring these moments are kept off of social media, never allowing them become who we are, or at least who we are perceived to be.

We decided to make T-Pain into a monster because it is easier than admitting the monstrousness within ourselves — the parts of us controlled by carnal impulses, the inner voice that screams “I want people to like me, too! God damn!” It’s one thing to love T-Pain because he reveals and speaks to those parts of us, but it’s another to respect him — to do so would challenge our idea of what is worthy of respect. 

I have always loved T-Pain. I have learned to respect him, and through that, I learned to respect some of my own monstrosity. Let’s buy the man a drank. 

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