The singer that soundtracked a thousand summers returns with broader sounds and a brand new outlook
Few of us at FADER knew what to expect when we heard T-Pain would be coming to the office to hang out and play new tracks from his upcoming album, Stoicville: The Phoenix. Once the most ubiquitous voice on pop radio, T-Pain's crisp, Auto-Tuned harmonies and bright, Atlanta-summer productions simultaneously made him a megastar and laughingstock, even as others took his style and ran to the bank with it. The singer/songwriter went through a period of deep depression and self-doubt, and remained radio-silent since 2011's Revolver flopped. But on this particular afternoon he arrived full of laughs, with a stock of potential hits in tow. He raced through an iTunes playlist with "hundreds" of potential album cuts, ranging from club bangers in the vein of his current Top 10 hit "Up Down" to sweet ’60s soul, introspective ballads and even a rap verse or three. T-Pain opened up about his current moment and challenging past, as well as the emerging artists that inspired his return.
You played us one song about sitting in a boring party where everyone's staring at their phones. How’d you decide to write that? It was pretty easy to do. I’ve been to a lot of lame parties, and that's all everybody doing. I went to a club and paid $3000 for the whole section, call like 10 of my friends, and literally not one person was looking at each other. Everybody was on their phone the whole time. And I’m like "How the hell am I going to enjoy this?"
People expect artists to always be at the most popping party ever. It’s a part of your job. I like quiet places, I like going to clubs on their bad nights. You have to put on a show when there are a lot of people there, you gotta make it look like you're having a good time no matter how sleepy you are, which is just all the damn time. Always sleepy. I just want to sit in there, actually get one cup of alcohol, I don't want to have to go get bottles and sparkles. Just let me sit down, and if I'm not satisfied with this cup, I want another cup. I don't want to have to order a $20,000 bottle just so you can see me leave all this liquor on the table.
"Up Down" is a big party record right now. DJ Mustard has kind of picked up where you left off musically. How’d you guys first connect? My A&R J Grand. He pretty much linked the whole thing up, him and Mustard. He sent me some tracks, man, and automatically that was the one I gravitated to. Once I got down to LA, I was like, "Here is the songs, and here's what I’m trying to do with it.” And he was just like, “Perfect.” He didn't have to do anything, he was just like, “Alright, put it out, we'll see what happens!” And then here we are. It's a Top 10 record in the country, it's doing much better than I thought it was going to do, I ain't gonna lie.
Really? Yeah! Cause I was using that as a buzz record. I was just like putting it out to just to be like, "Yo, I'm making music again," and it worked out.
You produce almost all of your own stuff. I feel like Mustard’s one of the few producers whose style could mesh with yours like that. I went out of my comfort zone on that one. My pride gets in the way of me letting other people do beats for me. The whole time I was thinking, "I can make this, I don't have to work with anybody." But once I got that out of my head, I wrote the song in 10 minutes. Once you try too hard, you start failing. It’s out of fear of failure. If you get that fear out of your mind, it's freedom, it's such a freedom. I was in a slump for a while, trying to figure out where music is going. And when I made "Up Down," I was like, "This is what I used to do all the time, this is how I used to feel when I used to do songs."
So that was one of the earliest records you did. That was like one of the first records I did when I started doing music again. It was pretty early. But I got that fear out of my mind and It was a wrap after that. That's when all them songs that I just let you hear started coming into play.
Has writing always come really naturally for you? Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's when I started losing confidence in myself, cause the writing style of the industry was going a different way. Should I be talking about lean? How many times do I say “turn up”? (Laughs) But the only thing that's made me T-Pain is not going with what the industry is doing.
You've had countless smash features on other people's records, and given artists hit singles. How do you think features shaped your career? Features give you a different sound of an artist. When I get on a song with somebody else, it’s not the T-Pain that you would hear by myself. It’s a different challenge; you try to conform to that person’s style. When you get pigeonholed to a certain style, it lessens your ability to do features. If you’re not willing to go outside of what you usually do, then it lessens your ability to do features. If you’re not willing to change, if you’re not willing to conform to what these other artists do, it’s not going to match. I feel like that ability that I have to match an artist and really compliment the artist is a big part in me doing features. But there’s a lot of artists that can’t do that; they just stuck in their ways.
So during that first run, it was just the phone ringing every day? Every day. Oh my god, especially DJ Khaled. He’s probably hitting me right now. My phones over there. I’m so glad it’s over there (laughs). But no, that’s my man though. He knows when we got hits on hand. He finds a beat and he’s like, “Yo, I’m ‘bout to send you this beat. I need you to do it tonight cause I wanna put it out tomorrow.” (laughs) “Well, it’s 11 o’clock at night.” “I know man, I need this.” I’m like, “Ah man." People find me, I don’t know how they do it. They find my number.
"I like going to clubs on their bad nights. You have to put on a show when there are a lot of people there, no matter how sleepy you are, which is just all the damn time."
Are you more selective now than you were about who you’re collaborating with? Not really. I’m actually less selective now. I started getting a big head after a while. I only wanted to work with big artists, but it got boring, you know? Big artists all want to do the same thing. Everybody wanted me to yell, everybody wanted me to say “Win,” or everybody wanted me to talk about strippers. It started getting like that. So once I found artists like FKA Twigs, Sampha, Jacob Latimore, We Are Toonz, people like that. When I get on their songs, it brings out a different T-Pain. Big artists didn’t wanna take challenges because they know the formula. So it was just like, “Do T-Pain.” And when I do T-Pain, they were like, “No, no, do the other T-Pain.”
“Do the T-Pain I heard on this song.” (Laughs) Exactly. So it started being a lot of that. So I had to go and look for smaller artists. And it feels better.
You mentioned working with Twigs earlier when you saw our cover. How were those sessions? It’s been great, man. It’s been a whole different experience. Twigs actually changed my whole perspective on the music industry. She made me proud of myself again, the way she was talking to me.
What did she say? I told her I wanted to do some stuff, like videos and put out some songs. But I was like, “I can’t.” She was like “Why?” I was like, “You know, the label and stuff like that.” She was like “Why? Do they control you? How are they controlling you? What, are they gonna sue you? Cause that’s their money, too.” (Laughs) She opened my eyes. I felt like I was brainwashed and she came and reset me. Like, “Why am I not putting out songs? Why am I not doing this?” Cause every time I see her, there’s a new video, a new song. I’m like, “Your label’s okay with that?” And she’s like, “I don’t give a fuck about that.” (laughs). It changed my life, you know, the way she looked at things, and I tell her every time I talk to her. She changed my life. It was amazing.
You have a very strong relationship with your wife. I would imagine that during this tough time, where you were in a dark place and had difficulty making music, she was really supportive. What’s some of the advice that she gave you? She’s very spiritual. A lot of people get that mixed up with religious. It’s a huge difference. She sees auras and she can feel a person’s presence. She knew what was going on inside my head. She knew how bad I was doing and how I was like, clinically depressed. It was just bad. I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t stop drinking. I was doing drugs. I had always said in my life "I ain’t never doing drugs" and I just couldn’t stop. She knew what was going on and she got the bad end of it, man. The house got destroyed, I’m tearing stuff up around the house. She stuck through it, man. I don’t know how. I have no idea how she did it, but every time I woke up in a bathroom or under a table in the kitchen or something like that, she was right there holding me, consoling me and really just being supportive. She never let go no matter how bad it got. She never let go and she refused to. I don’t know how she did it. She’s very strong, she’s stronger than me obviously. She gets real spiritual, man. She’s real into the universe and she’s got me into it. We meditate together now. We make sure we have a link between each other before we have a link with anybody else and our link together to the universe and stuff like that. She’s holding it down; she hold down the whole family (laughs). She fixes all the problems. She’s a strong woman, man.
Speaking about family, I know you’ve had a very tumultuous relationship with your dad, who struggled with drug addiction. Yeah, yeah.
We heard you reference him on some of the songs you just played. What’s your relationship like with him now? It’s much better. He didn’t know what our relationship was. He didn’t know it was bad. He thought it was great, because I’ve never expressed all this stuff to him. I’ve never said anything because I was just afraid of him for so long. You know and um, when he saw the Behind the Music, he didn’t know that I was sayin’ all that stuff. So he kind of took onto himself like “Damn, I scared the hell out of my kids. You know, I really did. I did this. I thought I was bein’ cool with this, but that scared him too.” He saw my perspective finally. It’s like a bond now. I never gave him the knowledge in order to be a better father. He was a great father, but [there were] parts that scared me, and I never told him that those were bad parts. But it’s all good now.
One of the coolest projects I saw you do was the Freaknik cartoon on Adult Swim. That was fun.
I know you’re just now getting back into music, but are there any other plans to do more film or TV? Yeah, yeah, I actually just signed a deal with ICM. They’re going to be booking all of that and getting me some movies and stuff like that. I didn’t want to at first. I don’t wanna be Ice Cube and shit. But people say I’m good at it, I don’t fuckin’ know. I just kinda act like myself, but if I get too good, it’s gonna get so busy with the movies stuff, I won’t be able to do music no more and I’m gonna turn into Tyrese or something like that. You know what I’m sayin’? (laughs) People would only know me from movies and not from my music. So I had to find the right time to do it. But I’d definitely get a few roles in. I’m definitely ready for a few roles.