Zero Effect: T-Pain enumerates his outside producers.

Get local news delivered straight to your phone

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.

We can't make City Paper without you


Your contribution is appreciated.

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.