Photo: Johnny Louis / Contributor via Getty Images
  /  07.17.2018

The circus is a dying form of entertainment that spills of the weird for the sake of it. Magnifying oddities comes down to collecting a cast of eclectic souls to parade around and hoping that they attract enough attention to make money and keep the crowd interested. The fact that its popularity is forever dwindling means that it’s much easier than 90s cartoons make it out to be. The best circuses feature a ringleader in the vein of P.T. Barnum or Norman Barrett who can string the loose performances together through a commanding narrative, enchanting the fans, and letting them know that there are forever new doors to open within this circus.

T-Pain leads the circus that is hip-hop, R&B, and everything in between. The singing rapper and rapping singer seldom gets the recognition and respect that he deserves for creating a playground for modern-day artists. From the romantic gems that reek of timeliness, to a current genre meta that sounds like the spiritual continuation of the sound that he once made dear, T-Pain has shown that he’s in control of his destiny, as well as hip-hop’s. His name pops up so much in conversation about them, that he introduces them to the world. He’s the ringleader, and hip-hop is his collective of freaks.

Every so often, when viral tweets capture 30 seconds of mid-2000s simplicities in an era right before the smartphone apocalypse, echoes of T-Pain’s dominance can be heard. “I’m Sprung” was his breakout hit with his willowy, waterfall-like voice harmonizing on the chorus. The bass comes crashing in waves, followed by a metallic groan that gives way to a hybrid mix of robot and humanity in the vocals — the advent of Auto-Tune in the modern era. The song’s popularity boosted T-Pain into the limelight, with a keen amount of attention being dedicated to the device that warped his voice so.

With the first domino knocked over, more began to fall. “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper)” and “Studio Luv” fed a growing loud of interest for all things Auto-Tune and, of course, T-Pain himself. He couldn’t miss. He knew what the fiends want it and, like Pusha T, he served them empathetically. Drizzled on top of an already strong foundation of vocal capabilities was the robotic auto-harmonizing sleaze that, at the time, was novelty. Once you heard that haunting train whistle with metallic, you knew that a T-Pain verse was on the way.

2006 was a mess of overly large fitted caps, roller-skating rink wheel turns to club music, and high-fashion flip-phone aesthetics. While dances were coming out faster than creatives were making them, T-Pain’s music managed to cut through the money-driven shrivel of his contemporaries, with people really paying attention to his every move. The following year, Epiphany came out, removing the separation between man and Auto-Tune ever so slightly. Pain was refining his sound and his image, and the Ladies’ Man vibe of “Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin)” was perfect to hide his rough-around-the-edges appearance while pushing him closer to heart-throb territory. “Bartender” continued that smooth journey to the club, with “Church” compounding the aesthetic that makes T-Pain, well, T-Pain. The music wasn’t just innovative, it felt more genuine than before. He revealed why in a conversation with U.K. writer Pete Lewis. “Epiphany signifies the moment I realized that, to make the best music I can, I needed to just go in the studio and be myself, and not concentrate so hard on following other people’s formulas,” he said.

Around the time Epiphany was in the works—and after the release, when the world saw that Auto-Tune wasn’t a means for equalizing the playing field, only to add a new element to an already good pre-existing sound—T-Pain’s influence and star power saw him begin to string together a collective of acts. He lent his unique vocals to many genre stalwarts of the time including Fabolous (“Baby Don’t Go”), T.I. (“Outta My System”), and Kanye West (“Good Life”). The game watched and interpolated his talent, extracting the best bits while leaving just enough for Pain to carve out his own way.

2008 was the year that the mid-2000s dance craze was officially extinguished. With that being violently thrust aside, hip-hop needed a new aesthetic to guide it into a new era. T-Pain became its crutch. His influence was everywhere — Lil Wayne discovered the technology (he and Pain were close associates) and began using it heavily; Ron Brownz made a mockery of it with “Pop Champagne”; and Kanye West leaned towards it first in Young Jeezy’s “Put On” before releasing an entire album with the technology that November called 808s and Heartbreak. Through all the noise, T-Pain was watching, absorbing the breadth of his influence, and created a concept that grasped his rule over the game, but has really congealed a decade later : the ringleader.

Thr33 Ringz took T-Pain to a new level, stylistically and sonically. He was clearly over-the-top in circus-themed visuals, and it worked. His sounds doubled down with the Auto-Tune for tremendous effect in ways that his peers weren’t, utilizing it strictly for the novelty instead of its capabilities. Through the album, its visuals, and the Pr33 Ringz mixtape before it, we learned that Pain’s influence has a range farther than we could imagine. He was in the midst of running things, and he knew it. He wanted to show us that while everyone can take his sound and run with it, he could serve as the spiritual master of ceremonies, introducing them through his work.

But after the album, T-Pain ‘s circus endured some hardships. He released RevolveR in 2011 after two years of delays, to middling reception, with fourth studio album Oblivion releasing in 2017. A plethora of songs were released in the downtime around each album’s release, but nothing stuck like his creative music before. The strings that he gripped control of the game with had finally escaped his grasp. He fell further and further backwards while his influence continuously introduced new acts in his image, reminding the public of him each time.

Now, it’s like the entire game is T-Pain. From the zany singing of Lil Uzi Vert screaming of his emotions to the clouds, to the “bleached assholes” that Kanye croons about robotically, from top-to-bottom, T-Pain is felt everywhere. It makes his absence that much more blaring, even if he does appear on Twitter dancing in his driveway. That dominance is what’s missing. As the ringleader, he needs to make himself more apparent.

When his Tiny Desk Concert performance for NPR released in 2014, people were blown away by his refined vocals. They’d forgotten that he never needed the Auto-Tune in the first place. He recently dropped his remix of Ella Mai’s viral hit “Boo’d Up,” and the world was once again reminded that the circus that we’ve been subject to has been through his leadership. Auto-Tune is all the rage now, but if he were to drop this same, commanding performance in this environment rife with opportunity for him to come back, we could see him get as much praise as the subjects that he’s birthed.

Even though he controls the narrative to a certain degree, he seldom gets the respect that he deserves. Ringleaders are the same in this aspect — nothing more than glorified hosts. Yet they introduce a narrative and translate astonishment to acts, something that T-Pain has done with the countless imitations that he’s created. Ringmasters are important pieces of performances, often being utilized as an aspect. T-Pain’s been the same in his laundry list of features, yet remaining central has been a struggle. At 32 years old, rap’s a young man’s game, and it’s looking more like he’ll have a harder time getting back in.

Yet, a circus wouldn’t be complete without a ringmaster. They’re often recognized as the show’s master, and through their creativity, they create a show worth watching. T-Pain’s been doing that for years now. It’s time we tune back in.

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