When Faheem “T-Pain” Rajm first started releasing singles like “I’m Sprung” and “I’m In Luv (Wit A Stripper)” in 2005, he seemed harmless enough. A reduction of Lil Jon’s cough-syrup party-freak character in Alice-In-Wonderland Mad Hatter drag, Mr. Pain is probably best known to everyone else for his turn in the Lonely Island’s video for “I’m On A Boat,” in which he’s clearly in on the joke. His almost cartoonish devotion to his schtick has meant that while no one can touch him in his métier, his reach is also limited to the occasional feature spot on other people’s tracks, which is honestly where he shines. A little T-Pain goes a long way.
Aside from what we can gently call “the occasional legal issue,” he’s still in the game, doing a lot of guest spots with a wide array of modern artists (Chance the Rapper, gospel star Kirk Franklin, Austin Mahone, Timbaland, Ne-Yo; he’s the rare artist that doesn’t seem to have beef with anyone, and can cross camps at will), and in ten years when he gets a Vegas show, I bet it’ll be a hell of a fun time.
While he does seem like a natural hedonist, he’s best known for his liberal and constant use of Autotune, a tool you’re probably sick of hearing about, and which probably shows up a lot more than you think. (Antares Technologies actually owns the trademark for it, although like any partway saleable idea, there are plenty of knockoffs which are varying degrees of acceptable. There’s an iPhone app that can do it for you on the fly if you like.) It works in real time, and many artists use it even during live concerts, and not just hip-hop or R&B acts; Faith Hill, Shania Twain and Tim McGraw all use Autotune in their concerts. Of course, there are purists in all genres too. I don’t know if it matters anymore; what’s the difference between the talent in someone’s actual throat and the quality of a finished song? To the listener, there really isn’t a difference*.
Cher’s producers noticed that in 1998, when they were mixing down her newest single, “Believe.” They tried the as-yet-unnamed robotic effect, and they (and Cher) dug it. It was released, it caused a bit of a sensation, and Cher set a record by being the oldest solo act to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 ever. (She’s had a hell of a career; we’ll get to her at some point.) The effect was known as “The Cher Effect” for a while, until the producers finally came clean and showed how they did it. (It’s okay, everyone got rich.)
There are tons of artists who rail against it — Death Cab For Cutie, Neko Case, Trisha Yearwood, and Michael Bublé, to name but four — but like Bob Dylan plugging in his guitar at Newport, Autotune is little more than another tool to make new music at this point. And once you see it that way, it makes it a lot easier to just enjoy the latest Gregory Brothers single. That’s how pop music works; a little innovation, a little deviation from the norm, and if you can tap your foot and/or sing along to the melody, then it’s all fine.
*But then again, I don’t always buy organic either. I’m hardly a purist in pretty much anything.