It’s been almost a decade after Tallahassee’s T-Pain left behind his rap career with the group Nappy Headz and released his first solo album Rappa Ternt Sanga, but the same Auto-Tune vocal effects he pioneered — and were inspired by the vocoder leads of ‘80s/’90s R & B originators Roger Troutman and Teddy Riley — are a staple of not only the music industry, but many aspects of American pop culture in 2014.
“Now I’m watching cartoons with my kids and seeing that cartoons are using Auto-Tune!” T-Pain said with a laugh. “It makes me feel good about myself, ‘cause I feel like I changed the world. Like, multiple genres are doing what I started … People’s definition of a ‘pop star’ now is ‘anybody who uses Auto-Tune,’ which is insane to me.”
While Auto-Tune has almost completely taken over mainstream radio pop, its also had a huge resurfacing in rap. Current superstars like Future, Chief Keef, Young Thug and Lil Durk croon their lyrics in woozy robot voices, and even genre veterans like Gucci Mane who sat out on the first wave of the trend have ventured into syrupy Auto-Tune balladry in recent years. A current youth-based subgenre of Chicago rap called “bop” (T-Pain had never heard of it, either) consists almost entirely of saccharine major-key melodics and Auto-Tuned vocals.
“The first time I put out “I’m Sprung,” [his first single] everybody was like ‘well, this is a one-time thing. We’ll never hear this again.’ I was asking [other artists] for advice on how to keep going, and it was like: ‘get rid of that Auto-Tune or whatever, that robot voice thing you got. Get rid of that and I think you’ll make it.’ And of course, I didn’t listen to that.”
The “one-time thing” turned into more hit singles, chart-topping second and third albums, and went on to make T-Pain the most sought-after featured artist in mainstream rap and R & B in the subsequent years, with even Kanye West and Lil Wayne calling upon him to help work on their respective 2008 albums 808s + Heartbreaks and Tha Carter III. Even weathering a sudden, seemingly worldwide backlash in 2009 that included anti-Auto-Tune protests at the Grammy Awards and rap mogul Jay-Z proclaiming its death in a new single “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)”, T-Pain and his methods are finally being recognized and respected for their lasting impact.
“People in the States for some reason get taught that you’re not supposed to like old things anymore,” T-Pain pointed out. “I always try to make theories about why people hate anything more than a year old. We get blinded by things for some reason.”
8 p.m. Wednesday, Mar.21 at Neumos, 925 E. Pike St., Seattle; $30 or $130 VIP (206-709-9442 or neumos.com)