The Iron Way
Pop music and technology have always had an uneasy relationship, with arbitrary lines defining how much technology an artist is allowed to use before his or her music stops being “real.” Nobody knows more about this problem right now than T-Pain, the master of Auto-Tune, who released a new mixtape The Iron Way on March 27.
Even in 2015, you can still find plenty of people who believe that the use of Auto-Tune ruins music by obfuscating the voice and hiding a performer’s true self. Auto-Tune is a musical tool like any other; It serves to expand and deepen artistry. Bemoaning its existence should seem silly, in the same way it’s silly when your grandfather tells you that rock’n’roll ruined popular music.
But deep-rooted, old-fashioned prejudices die hard, so in 2014, T-Pain embarked on a PR campaign to change the way people thought about his music, with a pronounced focus on the highbrow crowd. His main argument, as spelled out in an interview with The New Yorker, was that he was the victim of a double standard. In the ’00s, he was leading the charge to the future by bringing Auto-Tune (back) into pop music, but while successors, most notably Kanye West, are now hailed as forward-thinking visionaries, T-Pain is dismissed as an unmusical hack.
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Nonetheless, he tried to appease his critics by appearing in an NPR Tiny Desk Concert — an unexpected move for an artist with his level of commercial success — and singing without vocal effects. Predictably, the Internet got wildly excited: “Wow, this man can actually sing” was the gist of the conversation afterwards. T-Pain doubled down by releasing “Say The Word,” a pretty track — again performed sans Auto-Tune — aimed with laser-like focus at fans of How To Dress Well or Bon Iver.
But unless T-Pain is planning to record a duets album with Tony Bennett, his ability to sing in this sense is completely irrelevant. What matters is his melodic gift, his knack for bending notes around corners and piling them into bright, irresistible formations, which he did repeatedly during the second half of the ’00s. He should be regarded as an important figure who built on the work of the early wave of vocal manipulators — Prince, Zapp — and effectively introduced a new instrument into R&B and hip-hop, paving the way for much of Kanye’s post-Graduation sound and recent musical landmarks like Future’s Pluto.
It’s hard not to see The Iron Way — T-Pain’s first new mixtape since 2012 — as a product of his frustrations: It’s aggressive and wildly overstuffed with blustery rapping. He reveals his mindset immediately with “Kill These N—-‘s:” “You know I’m a beast in the streets, and all this hate that I receive/ make me wanna eat them up like they my dinner… I got to let them know that they f—ing with a winner.” Yells of “payback!” drift through the background.
This is T-Pain with his fists up: he follows the opener with “Disa My Ting,” incorporating the dancehall sound that has added a tough strain to records like Kanye’s Yeezus and Kendrick Lamar’s “Blacker The Berry.” A few tracks later, on “Trust Issues,” T-Pain borrows his cadence and sentiments from Drake for another eruption of self-assertion. “One day n—-s gonna learn not to fuck with me,” he raps. And then there’s “Personal Business:” “As far as Auto-Tune, it’s my dick you n—-‘s can get off.” Sometimes T-Pain steps aside to allow his collaborators to do the boasting for him. Kardinal Offishall claims he’s “ahead of his time” on “Disa My Ting,” Sean Jay does the same on “Trust Issues.” The young OG Maco makes a spirited appearance on the harsh, shouty “Wait A Minute.”
T-Pain has reason to be angry, but he hasn’t channeled that smoldering energy into his singing, even though that’s where he excels. Contemporary male R&B — full of minimal beats, sticky vocals with the edges sanded off, and brazenly sexual lyrics (Ty Dolla $ign, Jeremih) — is indebted to T-Pain’s style from a decade ago. He was R. Kelly’s co-flirt, the one making eyes at bartenders and singing about “69” and “Backseat Action” on 2007’s Epiphany. On The Iron Way, he doesn’t spend much time asserting his influence on the latest class of singers. Instead, he channels a throwback Atlanta mixture of hip-hop and simmering southern soul on “Need To Be Smokin’,” one of the tape’s most relaxed moments. “Let Ya Hair Down,” featuring The-Dream, is more modern, with a snapped-beat and cascading harmonies.
Then there’s “Hashtag:” the social-media references in the lyrics mean this will be dated almost immediately — in the same way that the AOL mention dooms Destiny’s Child “Bug A Boo” — but the track is elegant and goofy, tender, patronizing and wounded all at once. T-Pain combines piano, blurping vocal samples, and sugary jets of Auto-Tune; everything seems to grow steadily more expansive until the song suddenly ends. The best way to quiet detractors is with a smash. “Hashtag” probably won’t be big enough for T-Pain to regain control of his narrative, but surely that track will come.