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It might be easy to peg T-Pain as an overachiever already—on the surface, the young singer/producer appears to be yet another Southerner with questionable vocal talent and a penchant for songs about drinking hard, getting laid, and celebrating the charms of his Cadillac (a Brougham, natch). But in his case, it’s all about the delivery.
T-Pain’s calling card is his use of vocoder effects—the tech tweak that made Cher sound like a cyborg on “Believe.” It’s a crutch, an instant way to separate him from all those other high-pitched hip-hop singers who owe their souls to R. Kelly or Bobby Brown. And in T-Pain’s hands, the vocoder sound is no less gimmicky than it was 30 years ago, when it was more popular with hirsute rockers than with urban-music gurus. But it works—or it’s at least tolerable—because he’s committed to it. To put it another way: If you’re gonna use your records to examine the mindset of a drunk, horny dude, it’s perfectly acceptable to sing in a wobbly-ass voice.
Epiphany, the Tallahassee, Fla., native’s second major-label disc, is a lesson in aesthetic thoroughness: Unlike most of the rappers who use him to sing hooks on their albums, T-Pain produces all of his own beats. Pick ’em apart, and his tracks don’t appear to be remarkable: The percussion is wholly electronic (think Miami bass without the cocaine pace), the hooks are familiar (lots of synth squiggles and wah-wah guitar), and the bottom end is expansive (of course). T-Pain is no hack, though—he smartly avoids both excess and minimalism.
Consider the single “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’).” It’s a radio-ready ballad, with its rampant “ooh, oohs” and its drawling cameo from Yung Joc. Below the vocal tracks—which amount to a layer cake of lustful silliness—T-Pain adds a metronomic snap and a few subdued, sliding synth scales. The net effect is glossy and mildly annoying, but the song communicates plenty of humility, too. Ne-Yo, Akon, Lloyd and all the others wouldn’t go there.
Other successes: “Tipsy,” in which T-Pain offers, “change your perspective, baby” while carefully borrowing some flow from Bone Thugs-n-Harmony; “Yo Stomach,” an ecstatic celebration of taut female midriffs; “Backseat Action,” which has the immortal lines, “I’m ’bout to pull over and give ya the business/Holla at me/Can I get a witness?/Now here we go” and enough kick-drum to fill a stadium; and the reggaeton-influenced “Shottas,” which features hair-on-fire appearances by the underrated Kardinal Offishall and the overrated Cham.
Much could be made of the combination of the interlude “I Got It” (a phone conversation where T-Pain hears that his boo has HIV) and the sex-and-consequences ditty “Suicide,” which appear close to the front of the disc. Yeah, it’s a socially responsible artistic choice, a ballsy way to address a life-and-death topic. But the two tracks are more interesting for their utter lack of preachiness. Like he does elsewhere, T-Pain simply plays it straight.