T-Pain and DJ Drama,
The Iron Way
It’s been six years since T-Pain sounded so confident, and eight years since he’s sounded so new. And he seems hornier than ever.
Five months ago, after T-Pain performed a now-famously unmodified medley for NPR's Tiny Desk concert series, it wasn’t immediately clear what “a T-Pain comeback” could even mean. The same ol' stripper anthems, piggybacking on the strength of the grand snap renaissance? Alternatively: an acoustic reboot? Or a lyrical-miracle mimicry a la Waka Flocka Flame? Every third week or so, T-Pain was firing from all possible angles, with equal measures of passion and last-gasp desperation. DJ Drama blessing T-Pain with his own Gangsta Grillz tape seemed less so like the resurrection that was promised, and more like a swan song.
As a preview of Stoicville, the major label retail release that T-Pain still has in the works, The Iron Way is Auto-Tuned all right, and it's three bedroom fetishes (food, watersports, beeper-play) too pervy for NPR's target demo. “Sun Goes Down” is the catchiest song and surest sign that T-Pain never fully unplugged from the sensibilities that drive hip-hop radio to this day, 10 years after "I'm 'n Luv (Wit a Stripper)" launched his stardom. As much as "Sun Goes Down" is a call to shake off the stress of a dwindling weekday, it also sounds like him shaking off that fade from Future. Such is the gist of The Iron Way, which opens with “Kill These Niggas,” a Django-swaggering refrain that’s as vengeful as the album gets. He dedicates several tracks to his rivals and nebulous haters, and it’s a treat to hear DJ Drama cheering him ringside. (“This shit too fire for me to talk on,” Drama says at the top of “Sun Goes Down." "I'mma just shut up and be a fan!")
Vengeance aside, T-Pain’s subject matter is intact, but with refreshed stylistic signatures. (We don't hear a throwback "shaw-tay-ee!" until "Ever," the final track.) “15” is a clap-powered carousel of strip club proficiency; the snares are a gallop, and the strobing bass beats are damn near athletic, a soundtrack of competitive twerking and white tee contests. T-Pain's double-time flows aren't naturally his own, though the songwriting is all him, for sure; “Booty Butt Ass,” with its uncanny imagery of his lady's backside as a RadioShack, and “Ever,” with its illustration of a vixen having apparently pissed her Apple Bottoms. Not to be outwitted by Jhene Aiko's recent booty-play, T-Pain shouts his very best quotables at max volume and vulgarity on “Did It Anyway”: “I put her on the dinner table and put my face in the booty like a vanilla cake/I gave her that dick!”
As with any solo mixtape that exceeds its ideal 60-minute cap, there is chaff. “Personal Business” drags T-Pain furthest from his wheelhouse, instead casting him as Jake One-era Freeway, a throwback that's ill-advised for a guy whose mission is to prove that he isn't trapped in 2008; plus, it doesn’t help that “Personal Business” and the superior “Relax” are, essentially, the same song. Even “Heartbeat,” a rare and thorough R&B attempt, sounds like a Chris Brown album cut that's too (relatively) formal to suit T-Pain's kink otherwise. While Lil Wayne, OG Maco, and Kardinal Offishall match pace and attitude on Iron Way's more aggressive collaborations, Migos, K Camp, and Snootie Wild waste away when assigned to zzz-sides "Represent" and "What You Know." Much like E-40 on that Big Sean single, Bun B is literally running out of words and exhausting all his rhyme schemes on "The King."
As one of T-Pain's strongest projects to date—trumped only by Thr33 Ringz (2008), I'd argue—The Iron Way is surprisingly worthy of its runtime, if only for T-Pain's having given us "Trust Issues," the sort of vulgar trap mimicry that Kanye's "All Day" could've been, and should've been, given the right kind of energy behind an otherwise redundant expletive: "Better duck, nigga!/Unless you got a bulletproof truck, nigga!/Cuz you the only one throwing money in the club!/You the only one that's gon be stuck, nigga!" Cheers to nightclub restroom sex and Wrestlemania, of which T-Pain is the patron saint.
Justin Charity is a staff writer for Complex. Follow him @brothernumpsa.