T-Pain is a phoenix these days. Last week, after NPR posted footage of the rappa-ternt-sanga performing live in their studio, without Auto-Tune, the Internet responded with polite, viral shock. While T-Pain had previously, frequently sung without heavy modification of his vocals, Auto-Tune is his signature, and at this cooled stage of his career, T-Pain has long struggled to shake the creative constraints of his biggest hit records, "Buy U a Drank," "Can't Believe It," "Bartender," Chopped n Skrewed," and the Lonely Island parody "I'm on a Boat."
"Up Down (Do This All Day)," T-Pain's latest hit from last year, may or may not forewarn us of his revival. His latest release, "Stoicville," is a somber, introspective, rapsung track backed by sparse piano and trap drums: My last album ain't do numbers like I wanted to/But that was God tryna ask me what I'm gonna do. "Stoicville" is the defiant title track of Stoicville: The Phoenix, T-Pain's first label release since 2011's Revolver.
As candid as T-Pain is on "Stoicville," he was even more candid with us when he swung by to discuss his work on the album so far, the collaborations he now refuses to do, his feelings about Auto-Tune, and his somewhat pessimistic outlook on the state of R&B, though he's got only the highest hopes for himself.
We’ve seen a lot of positive reaction to your recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert performance. Why do you think so many folks are still shocked to learn that you can sing?
People have been lead to believe that Auto-Tune just completely changes your voice. That is the opposite of what it does. It just gets you to the nearest semitone. People feel like you can sing like crap, and you put Auto-Tune on and you just sound like an angel. It’s like any effect, a delay or something like that. People have been taught to think that Auto-Tune destroyed “real” singers, not knowing that the “real” singers use Auto-Tune more than I do; they just use it correctly.
There are examples of you straight singing on your albums, like on "Keep Going" from Thr33 Ringz, but these seem to have been overlooked.
Because [people] just want to hear the party songs. Nobody wants to ride in the car and listen to a song about my kids. It’s all about being in the club. People want to turn up. I always make sure there is a song with no Auto-Tune on each one of my albums, and that’s usually the song that gets skipped over.
Chris Brown’s voice is Auto-Tuned on his latest album, and yet we still regard him as a traditional R&B singer. Why is it different for him?
That’s because they heard his natural voice first. They heard mine second, which is kind of backwards.
What genre do you associate yourself with?
What do they call Sam Cooke’s genre?
He's soul, R&B.
That’s what I like sounding like.
I’ve always considered you a hybrid of crunk and R&B.
People like me to yell on their records. I don’t know what that’s all about. They want me to scream a bunch of crunk shit. Ever since “All I Do Is Win,” they just want me to yell. Everybody called me for that same kind of format, it gets boring. I don’t want to turn up all the time.
I don’t want to turn up all the time.
And now you want to do more soulful, traditional R&B-styled music?
That’s usually what my show turns into. I’ve got a band, and we turn every song into some kind of soulful version. When you go to my show, it’s harmonies everywhere.
What do you think of R&B music today?
It makes me sad that all these songs sound the same, and that everybody is doing the same thing. Going to the same producers, instead of just doing what makes you happy. It’s very sad. I know for a fact that people are forcing themselves to be happy with these things. That just hurts my feelings. This thing was created to express yourself in many ways, not just the winning way. There’s so many people sacrificing their own love for themselves to be liked by a few people in the world. That makes me sad.
What new R&B music do you actually enjoy?
I’m into Telepop, FKA twigs, James Blake, Sampha, the Twins. I cannot listen to normal R&B music or what people are calling R&B music right now. It’s so the same. Everybody wants to do whatever’s winning.
Of the people you listed, people like to box FKA twigs in as alternative R&B. Do you consider that a real genre?
I don’t think there’s an alternative R&B. People just don’t know what this new music is, so they have to put a familiar label on it. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s not alternative R&B.
Where do you imagine the Stoicville album fitting in?
I’ve got over 120 different songs ready. I don’t think there is going to be a certain sound to it. I think it’s going to be very confusing. This is the same way I put together my last mixtape. I had a listening session with 100 people. I had them filling out surveys. We did the tally, did the math, and we put those song on it. That was my most versatile mixtape ever. I felt good about that. I think that’s what I’m going to do this time.
Will the album be more solo-driven, or will you have lots of features on it?
I think it will be a solo-driven thing. I’ve seen a lot of people's true colors lately. I stopped fucking with a lot of people.
If you notice every time I do a song, it’s always got a feature on it. They call that “bullet-proofing” in the industry. Every time I turn a song into the label, they’re like, "So who are you putting on it?" Why can’t I have a song by myself? Why do I need a rapper to bulletproof my song? My shit is dope already.
There’s so many people using this formula and collaborating to bulletproof their songs. Just make your music. Stop trying to make people like you by associating yourself with someone else. That’s weird to me. I’m not trying to go get a bunch of different people on different songs. If you don’t like my music, then you’re not a person that I want to be around anyways. I make music for myself, and hopefully there’s other people out there like me. That’s all I can do.
A lot of these producers, I would go chill with them and do songs. Then I would be like, “I like this song, I wanna put it out,” then they would be like, “I need money first.” I would be like, “You know what, never mind.” I’m just going to produce all my shit, and if I get any outside producers, it’s going to be one of my homeboys that’s real close to me who ain’t gonna ask me for money and ain’t gonna trip about royalties and all that shit.
When will we hear something new from you and Kanye? That relationship seemed deeper than, “This person is just on my song.”
It was, but that [relationship is] always depending on hotness. You don’t put an artist that’s not hot on your song. That’s the wrong thing to do no matter how much you like that artist or you dig that artist. When a[n old] Hammer song comes on, you love it and dance to it, but God forbid you put him on a song.
I just gotta be on top or close enough to the top in order for Kanye to work with me again, or anybody for that matter. That’s just what that is. You got to be up there.
You’ve told some great stories about strip clubs over the years. What are the ideal environments you have in mind for people listening to T-Pain songs?
I usually picture them at my shows. I’m doing a song for the first time and trying to see how people react to the beginning of the song ’cause they only give a song 15 seconds to get interesting. So I try to figure out how would it appeal to somebody at my show, if I was performing it for the first time and they never heard it before.
What songs of yours get the best crowd reactions?
It depends where. In Australia, “Church” and “Take Your Shirt Off,” but those are songs that aren’t popular here.
Of course “All I Do Is Win,” that would be the huge thing. I put a ban on that. It gets boring after a while, because I do it the same every night, but the crowd hasn’t seen it before so it’s new to them. So I just add things every month or so just to change it up for me.
“Drinking Partner” is always my favorite to perform. One time we was messing around during a show because we didn’t really care about the show and their wasn’t that many people there. I somehow came up with this remix to “Drinking Partner” while it was happening. I just told the band to keep playing. I don't know what going to happen, but keep playing. We actually do that in the show now for real, and it’s so beautiful, man. I love singing it, love performing it. The crowd usually gets a little bored by the end of it, so we turn up right after it. I try not to get too into it, but it’s so beautiful.
What’s your impact on R&B in its current state?
It definitely has a lot more energy now. It’s a lot more dance-y. There wasn’t as much people cursing in R&B songs. I can say that I brought the carelessness to it, ’cause if you hear Chris [Brown]’s first and second album he was really, really singing R&B, and now his voice is a lot stronger and he can sing, “These hoes ain’t loyal!” and really put that emotion into it. You don't really have to sing on everything. Just be cool. Calm down. Snap your fingers. Do your step. Just be cool man and say it how you would talk to somebody. I think I brought that carelessness.
How close do you feel you are to a new, complete T-Pain album?
I can put it out now, but I know that I wouldn’t be satisfied with it.
Do you feel like that about all of your projects?
Yeah. I would just record forever. They have to tell me to stop recording. I just wouldn’t be satisfied with it. I feel like there’s so much more I could be doing, and I always want to make it better. Then I start over-thinking it, and doing too much to it and cluttering the songs. I think I can simplify it right now to an album that I would be sorta OK with. Very close, though.