T-Pain in video for Buy U a Drank

T-Pain’s Musical Identity Endures Through the Decades

The artist put up with years of slander due to his preference for autotune, but his charming personality and passion for music has kept his fans wanting for more.
October 9, 2021
8 mins read

Faheem Rasheed Najm, more commonly known as T-Pain, has not had a straightforward journey through the music industry. Persistent oscillation more accurately captures the hip-hop star’s career of ups and downs. But despite the chaos of the music industry, T-Pain has never lost his musical identity: He has maintained his integrity, as well as the defining aspects of his musicianship.

T-Pain entered the music world in 2005 with his album “Rappa Ternt Sanga.” The songs were catchy, featuring identifiable elements of 2000s pop music, but they also dove into the unfamiliar territory of autotune. While he wasn’t the first to do it — he claims he first heard it from J-Lo — autotune found itself all over “Rappa Ternt Sanga.” The cyber-like sound effect in songs like “I’m Sprung” and “I’m in Luv” cut through the status quo of pop and hip-hop.

T-Pain may have layered harmonies over the tracks, but his unedited vocals show that he didn’t have to rely on autotune. The distinct combination of vocal prowess and autotune became his style, which he incorporated all over his discography. His 2007 album, “Epiphany,” showed his distinct sound’s success by going No. 1 on the Billboard chart. T-Pain had, quite literally, found his groove in the music industry.

T-Pain’s use of autotune developed as an easily recognizable, signature style because one always knew when they were listening to him. However, his positive image was just as consistent as his musical aspirations. He was featured in “Epic Rap Battles of History,” created his own Twitch channel and appeared in multiple comedy movies and television series. If his upbeat music wasn’t enough, seeing him outside the studio further established his charming and expressive personality. T-Pain always gave off good vibes.

Adversity Within the Industry

As his signature sound made its way around the music industry, autotune began to develop a poor reputation. The studio effect was twisted into a placeholder for absent talent. Usher, who T-Pain considered a friend, harshly critiqued his use of auto tune: “You kinda f—ed up music.” Usher felt “real” singers were disregarded and disrespected by T-Pain’s signature sound. Such unfamiliar and unjust animosity from T-Pain’s fellow pop star came as a shock to him, who was confused by the claim, saying, “But I used it, I didn’t tell everybody to start using it.”

Usher wasn’t alone with his claims, however. Hip-hop legend Jay-Z hopped on the bandwagon with his song “Death of Autotune,” wherein he sharply chastised hip-hop’s use of the “pitch fixer.” Hating on autotune started to become more mainstream than the vocal style itself. Soon enough, the slander began to undermine T-Pain’s established platform in the music industry.

Unsurprisingly, though, T-Pain refrained from starting any trouble. After reporting the interaction with Usher, he tweeted his stance on the matter: “I still love and respect Usher, telling that story was in no way meant to disrespect that man.” Based on his friendly reaction, T-Pain seemed to completely dismiss the music industry’s animosity.

When “Death of Autotune” dropped, however, things were different. This time, he recoiled and didn’t respond at all. T-Pain said the hate sent him into a “four-year depression,” during which he stopped making music. Still, no hostility could be found from him; rather, he only expressed sheer betrayal and misery.

T-Pain wasn’t the only rapper to be ganged up on by the music industry. In 2015, Drake’s ghostwriting was “exposed” by fellow rapper Meek Mill. Mill claimed Drake wasn’t “real” due to his collaborations with other musicians. Soon enough, dozens of fellow rappers and random Twitter users pig-piled on top of Drake, and ghostwriting was made out to be an absolute travesty. However, ghostwriting is nothing new in music — for instance, most of Elvis Presley’s songs came from previous blues artists, and Elton John was widely known for his collaborations with Bernie Taupin, who wrote most of John’s lyrics.

Ghostwriting in rap is now a real career, with rates up to $10,000 to $20,000 per anonymous feature. Mill’s slanderous and inaccurate comment showed how quickly gossip could spur on hateful bandwagons. T-Pain, a fellow victim of slander, was asked to comment on the feud in a 2015 interview, where he claimed it “wasn’t a big deal.” He explained his sympathetic opinion on the matter thoughtfully rather than resorting to brazen blurbs and retorts. Despite mainstream pressures, he chose integrity and empathy over the bandwagon and stuck up for his fellow musician.

An Unfortunate Hiatus

Despite subtly maintaining his presence in pop culture, T-Pain’s disappearance from the music industry was hard to witness. His four-year depression entailed a drought of new music, and from 2011 to 2017, he only released two singles. Before that, fans had been blessed with an album every two years. It became clear that the smears T-Pain endured had taken a toll. Autotune, his defining feature, was slandered and forsaken by the industry. It seemed his compelling sound was being taken away from his listeners. In 2019, he canceled his tour. He was instructed to identify technical difficulties as the culprit but instead decided to boldly announce it was due to low ticket sales. T-Pain’s struggles suggest his loss of identity, but through the cracks, one could see he was still there.

In 2014, T-Pain rose from the mud and declared his very much alive musical presence in an NPR Tiny Desk concert. The raw, unedited sounds of the concerts make them notorious for testing a musician’s capabilities, and T-Pain was able to put down the boisterous attacks on his talent in the most T-Pain-way possible — through his vocals. While his stellar performance put aside fears of having lost the beloved T-Pain, the lack of autotune was also delightfully surprising. He graced listeners with an angelic voice and an exuberant personality, which he was not afraid to show off.

While his voice shocked most viewers — not many knew of T-Pain’s vocal abilities — it wasn’t a new addition to his music. On “Rappa Ternt Sanga,” he layered the same unedited vocals over his auto-tuned melodies. His vocal prowess was there the whole time; the music industry simply chose to ignore it. But above all, the performance made one thing for certain: T-Pain wasn’t made famous by autotune. T-Pain made autotune famous.

T-Pain claimed he used autotune just to sound different, but this was not the root of his success. Sticking to his character and his musical aspirations are what truly sent him to the top. His integrity and authenticity never faltered, and his musical aspirations never left his sight, even if his rocky journey made it seem otherwise. From the top of the Billboard to canceling tours, his dedication to himself and his music was unmatched. “It’s what I do. And this is my style. I’m not gonna change my style because other people are starting to overuse it. Like, that’s just weird.” People like T-Pain are rare in an industry defined by fads, so let’s cherish his bangin’ beats while they’re still around

Jake Sanders, Rhodes College

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Jacob Sanders

Rhodes College
English, Minors in Business and Education

I’m an aspiring educator and freelance writer. I appreciate soft-filled Airheads bites and informality.

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