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T-Pain popularized Auto-Tune, but it came at a cost

His comments on Usher reveals an even harsher truth in T-Pain’s career

If laughter is the best form of medicine, that’s only because it hides pain. T-Pain’s laughed a lot over the years, but he’s been no stranger to voicing his mental anguish either. The news he made this week follows a decadelong trend of the self-proclaimed rapper-turned-singer’s search for clarity.

Featured in the recently released Netflix eight-part docuseries This Is Pop, T-Pain’s comments about R&B superstar Usher elicited a round of spirited reactions. He recalled a 2013 conversation with the Confessions singer aboard a flight to the BET Awards that T-Pain says sent him spiraling into a four-year depression.

“Usher was my friend,” T-Pain said. “I really respect Usher. And he was like, ‘Man, I’m gonna tell you something, man. You kinda f—ed up music.’ ”

He continued, “I just didn’t understand. I thought he was joking at first, but then he was like, ‘Yeah, man, you really f—ed up music for real singers.’ ”

T-Pain, still one of the more engaging and likable personalities in pop culture, has been reflecting on this particular memory for years now. Calling out Usher by name doesn’t come off as bitter as much as it shows an artist, once one of the biggest in the world, who is still grappling with where it all went wrong. There’s an undeniable element of melancholy in it. He’s become a sacrificial lamb for an element of the world of hip-hop and R&B that’s still prevalent.

The thirst for his music will likely never be what it once was two decades ago when he had one of the greatest runs of the 2000s. T-Pain didn’t destroy the industry as Usher reportedly remarked, especially not one that notoriously creates and swallows artists to advance its own interests. Instead, T-Pain set the groundwork for an entire ecosystem and paid the price for it. The worst part — the part he still struggles with — is that recompense will never happen.

T-Pain was no flash in the pan. He had 17 Top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 between 2005 and 2009. What has caused him to be both revered and mocked was his use of Auto-Tune. The tool, which allowed artists to manipulate their voices for exaggerated effects, wasn’t invented by T-Pain. He was just next in line to become mightily successful because of it. Roger Troutman of the funk band Zapp famously used Autotune’s forefather, the Talk Box. Hits such as Jennifer Lopez’s “If You Had My Love” and Cher’s “Believe” later employed Autotune’s benefits to runaway success.

T-Pain, however, brought Auto-Tune’s abilities to the forefront in the world of hip-hop. Yet, he was also the one whose career was blunted while artists that followed him, such as Nicki Minaj, Travis Scott, Quavo and Lil Uzi Vert, profited from his influence. One of them, Nicki Minaj, recently expressed remorse over turning down a chance to collaborate with T-Pain back in 2007. That’s not a knock on them, but it is proof that trailblazers often burn up.

Everything about T-Pain was different from the moment he burst onto the scene in 2005 with hits such as “I’m Sprung” and “I’m In Love With a Stripper.” He never served as spokesperson for trap music, like a T.I., Young Jeezy or Gucci Mane, or snap music like D4L and Dem Franchize Boyz were at the time. He also wasn’t a part of the contentious guard like Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Little Brother or Common. On top of that, he never identified with established gatekeepers such as Jay-Z, Nas or Eminem. Lil Wayne and Ludacris might have been equally as rambunctious and prolific, but never as happy-go-lucky as T-Pain always came off.

As unique as a three-piece suit at Mardi Gras, T-Pain was like the kid in computer class who was quirky and didn’t fit the societal definition of what “cool” resembled. But his talent and penchant for infectious, and more importantly, fun smash records, made him an in-demand of an artist. He gave hits to West, Lil Wayne, Plies, Jamie Foxx, Rick Ross and more. But then everything changed. T-Pain went from being an in-demand artist to a novelty act. He hadn’t gotten in trouble or gone to prison. The reasoning for this is simple. It’s in part due to the industry and the trends that dictate it.

T-Pain was falsely credited for obliterating the art’s purity. According to T-Pain himself, West wrote a diss track toward him while they worked on his 2008 Auto-Tune-heavy album 808s & Heartbreak. And this was after T-Pain’s appearance on their 2007 collaboration “Good Life” peaked as a top-five song. Allegedly, West had everyone in the studio singalong saying “T-Pain s— is weak” — a record even T-Pain admitted was good enough to put on the album though it was never released. In 2009, Christina Aguilera donned a shirt that read, “Auto Tune Is For P—ies” — though she’d later recant that statement after using it on her 2010 album Bionic, saying she respected those who used it creatively.

Jay-Z’s “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” in 2009 all but sealed T-Pain’s fate, though the song never mentioned him by name. It did, however, put him in the crosshairs. Due to the song’s massive popularity, fans regularly chanted “F— T-Pain” at his shows, prompting T-Pain to respond with “F— Jay.” T-Pain later apologized, saying he had reacted emotionally. Artists such as Diddy and Fabolous called him out of line, despite the obvious darts thrown his direction. There were other attempts happening alongside this controversy that were obvious copies of T-Pain’s style, such as work released from Ron Browz, the Black Eyed Peas or The Game. Even Usher’s 2010 hit “OMG” used Auto-Tune. And years later, T-Pain said Future’s brother allegedly told him that, “[Future] would never f—ing work with you. F— you and everything you stand for.” That spat stemmed from T-Pain saying Future, who heavily used Auto-Tune as well, was “the next T-Pain.”

“When I came out in the game, I was using Auto-Tune in order to make myself sound different. And then when everybody else started using it, it kinda made me sound the same again,” he confessed on Sway In The Morning in 2013. “It’s a bad thing to do, but I started telling myself, ‘I was doing this for nothing … ’ It was just terrible self-esteem, basically.”

As a result, the buying public followed. His sales decreased dramatically, and radio play dwindled as well. T-Pain was an involuntary martyr, and he’d done nothing to bring about his own commercial demise. The entire ecosystem of the music industry did.

“People can act like, you know, ‘I don’t care about when people hate on me,’ but the second they do, you feel that!” he told The New Yorker in 2014. “Like that’s really somebody saying that s— about you — it’s not, like, an artificially generated comment that these people are leaving on these YouTube videos. When people say I suck and I should kill myself, I don’t really feel good about that!”

Not just in music, but in many avenues of life, all too often a person isn’t given their proper due until it’s too late. T-Pain is in search of the approval he believes his career deserves, and not necessarily from fans. In the immediacy of his comments about Usher, a wave formed on social media to rush to his defense. But more so from his peers. Perhaps T-Pain, much like most artists, had simply run his course in his time atop music’s mountaintop. It’s just a shame that so many other powers that be made the decision for him.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.