T-Pain’s room at the W Hotel in Hollywood is stocked with premium liquor, but the bottles are all sealed. The singer and producer of “Buy U a Drank” once boasted about buying $150 shots of Louis XIII cognac (three for you and three for me), but these days he limits himself to beer.
With Auto-Tune now a staple of contemporary pop, country, R&B, and hip-hop, it’s easy to forget the disruptive genius of early T-Pain. He was the Prometheus of the software, one of the first rappers to turn singer, and directly or indirectly responsible for everything from 808s & Heartbreak to Lil Wayne’s narco-robot warbles. A world without T-Pain is one in which Drake might still be best known as Wheelchair Jimmy, Future might never have gone to Pluto, and Cher’s “Believe” might represent the high-water mark of automaton soul.
In 2011, after a string of crossover hits and two Grammy wins, T-Pain, whose given name is Faheem Najm, took a two-year hiatus. He had been one of the last superstars minted before the social media era, but as Auto-Tune proliferated he became a cheap target for parodies and jokes about the supposed superficiality of the sound, even while countless imitators leveraged his style. He was never entirely comfortable with celebrity, and his fear of failure eventually became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Suicidal thoughts plagued him. He developed a severe drinking problem, nearly got divorced, and almost abandoned music.
In 2013 he re-emerged, shorn of once-signature dreads and anxious to leave a greater legacy. Today, at 30, he retains the childlike wonder that made him a studio monster from the start, and has conquered some personal demons. But scars remain. Before our interview begins, his assistant gently makes a single request: “Can Auto-Tune be referred to as ‘The T-Pain effect?’”
“There’s no engineer. I record myself. I make all the beats. It’s solely T-Pain music.”—T-Pain
How do you define the different eras of your career?
T-PAIN: I’ve gone through so many phases that people think I’m afraid of things. If I would have kept the circus thing going, people would have felt like, “Oh that’s his shit.” But since I stopped doing it so quickly, people were like, “Somebody must have told him it was lame, and he stopped doing it.” I went through a steampunk phase, then stopped doing that. I didn’t know if I wanted to be emo or not. It caused people to perceive a sense of insecurity, instability, or just fucking insanity. In 2005 and 2006, I thought I was a skateboarder. It didn’t work out. I hurt myself once and was like, “Okay, that’s it.” I skated before all this extra-cool Lil Wayne and Pharrell shit. I only wore DC Shoes, super long socks. It was strange.
What about after that?
From 2007 to 2008, I thought I was the most street nigga in the world, with long T-shirts and super baggy pants. I wore bandanas under my hat but couldn’t really do it with dreads. I looked very dumb. After 2008, people started calling me a clown. The internet really went in on me for no reason. I saw “Clown,” “Clown,” “Clown,” so I was like, you know what? I’m going to make Thr33 Ringz. Not only am I going to make hits, I’m going to dress like an idiot the whole time, and you’re still going to love me. I’d just try to do the most outlandish shit. People would say, “Why would anybody take you seriously?” But I’m not trying to get people to take me seriously.
What did you want?
It’s not about me. It’s not about fans. It’s not about being cool. It’s not about acceptance. It isn’t about wearing the new shit. It ain’t about having the new shit. It ain’t driving the new shit. It’s about music. I made a mark on history. Then I lost faith in everything. In 2010, I said, “Fuck it, I don’t care if people like this.” I didn’t care if people didn’t know about the album. I just lost the passion. Through 2013, I was depressed. The industry turned it from a passion into a job. I had stopped making decisions for myself. When I released “Take Your Shirt Off,” and that didn’t do well, the label was like, “You were wrong this time. Now we’re going to take over.” That’s when shit started to go downhill.
You stopped trusting your instincts?
I was so worried about being wrong that I let the label do everything because I didn’t want to spend my money. Then it kept going further down, which made me more depressed. Like, “What the fuck is wrong?” Jive shut down, and they shipped everybody to RCA, which hit me off guard. I stayed making music but didn’t want to release anything. I couldn’t sleep because I’d hear the same song over and over. By 2013, I was like, “Let me go back and make my own decisions. Let me spend my own money to get back out there.” I paid for the “Up Down” video and edited it too. It re-animated me and got me out of the depression. It showed me that I just needed to trust myself again.
What form did your depression take?
A ton of drinking. I was tearing up my house. Only since getting out of it did I find out that my wife was thinking of divorcing me. I was coming at her in weird ways. I pushed her one time, but I don’t remember. I’d get so drunk that I’d just beat up my friends for no reason. I’d wake up and my fists would be bleeding. I fell down some stairs once. It got so bad. I had way too many guns in the house. I bought a safe just for that reason and told my wife to make up a passcode so I couldn’t get in there. I’m usually a balanced person, but during that time it was all negative. I felt like I had failed. When I found out that my kids were afraid of me, I was like, “Fuck this, I gotta do something.” Once I found out it was tearing up my marriage and family, I was like, “Fuck, I didn’t mean for that to happen.” I had to change.
How did you overcome your depression?
My wife and I got big into meditation. We go to seminars about universal connections and stuff like that. She’s actually going to come out to L.A. tomorrow, and we’re going to smoke this one thing that everybody says made them see God.
Yeah, we’re about to do that. I’m kind of afraid, but we’re going see what happens.
What have you learned that you’re applying to this next phase of your career?
I don’t think I’ve learned anything—I just matured. I’m still very dumb. I know that I don’t know things, and there’s much more to learn. All I know is that I came out of this situation more strategic. There are only three things I’m really afraid of in my life: bears, fire, and failing. But I’m nervous about everything. There’s never a worst-case scenario in this business—it can always be way-the-fuck worse than what you think it can be. Shit can ruin not only your career but your life.
What exactly happened when you worked on 808s & Heartbreak with Kanye? You were there to help teach him Auto-Tune?
I thought I was there to work on the album, but it was really more about him getting the approval. A lot of times, people would call me and be like, straight up, “I could do this song without you, but people wouldn’t like that I’m using Auto-Tune on a song that you’re not on.” You eventually find out who’s texting you for a reason and who’s texting because they just want to talk to you. Everybody wants those checks. Getting out of the public eye allowed me to weed out those people. The people that stuck around, like Chris Brown, Ne-Yo—those are my real friends in the industry.
“I’m not trying to get people to take me seriously.”—T-Pain
Do you feel vindicated now that Auto-Tune has gone from a trend people laugh at to a permanent fixture in pop, R&B, and rap?
It’s only now that I understand what being ahead of your time means. I did shit two years before it got cool, and nobody thought it was good. Then someone else comes along and does it, and now it’s the best shit in the world. I think people got too comfortable with me: “You’ve done a lot of those smash records; it’s not a surprise anymore.” But now that the whole Auto-Tune aspect has gone away, it’s a whole different ballgame.
What’s the creative evolution been like for your new record?
There are two stages of being in the studio with T-Pain. First, there’s the amazement that there’s nobody else in the studio. There’s no engineer. My manager will walk in every now and again just to make sure I’m making music and not on Reddit or something. I record myself. I make all the beats. It’s solely T-Pain music. The second part is just complete boredom. Because nobody knows what I’m thinking. I don’t write, so it’s not like there’s a beat happening and I’m sitting there jotting lyrics down. I just make the beat, export, import, go in the booth, and pour my heart out.
Did you ever write down your lyrics?
I wrote until 2007. I stopped due to sheer lack of time. So many people were calling me for guest verses that I didn’t have time to sit and write. One day I did 14 features without writing anything down, and everyone loved it. I was like, “So this is the way to do it.” But it’s a gift and a curse. The gift is I can get shit done quickly, and it’s true to the heart. The curse is that I talk about the same shit a lot. I’m growing very fucking slowly. I’m still a kid in everything I do.
What are you most proud of now?
Getting out of depression. That’s why it’s been easy to narrow songs for my new album down to 30 from 240. Most of the songs are about suicide and drinking too much, and it’s just a lot. But I kept two of them, just to show that it did happen.