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Approximately three blocks from my childhood home lies a store named Grand Furniture, located in an ancient building, but modestly furnished inside. A vast expanse of furniture in all colors, shapes, and sizes exists inside its walls. I would sometimes walk in there as a kid and run my hands down the spines of leather couches, hoist myself on top of soft bed displays, and test the lever mechanisms on reclining chairs as I watched a cycle of dated TV advertisements on outdated monitors. Each time I went in, sales associates briskly made their way to my side, only to find that I’d always be “just browsing.” You could chalk it up to subtle racism, but I think there was something else at play. Rather yet, I know so. On most days, I’d be the second or third person to enter into the store the entire day. Other times, I’d be the only customer that they had at all. A running thought that clouded my brain endlessly was how they managed to stay open. To this day, the store remains in business. I purchased a storm grey-noir black couch from it last year when I moved into my townhouse. When I purchased it, I was the only one in the store.

When I think of T-Pain’s career in the past few years, I think of that Grand Furniture store. How does he stay upbeat? How does he keep going in the face of near obscurity? Earlier this year, I wrote about how important he is as the creator of a hip-hop culture that exists in 2018, and I took a look back at everything he’s done. He’s the recipient of dozens of accolades, he’s responsible for the resurgence of Auto-Tune in popular music, and, he’s the feature artist of the 21st century (sorry, Future). Yet, as music culture does every 10 years or so, it pushes the older cast out to sea and brings in a motley cast of fresh swimmers. T-Pain’s last true successful year came in 2008 with the release of THr33 Ringz. Since then, two more albums have come with little elation or generated conversation. He’s open, but not enough people are purchasing furniture.

I’ve been a little more than a casual fan of T-Pain because when I hear his influence in every song in 2018—flat-out stylistic transfers of his late-2000s Auto-Tune runs—I then go listen to his work to somewhat balance the cosmic scales. I may not be in the market to purchase a couch, but I frequently browse his inventory. It makes me feel like I’m doing some good in the world.

Friday’s (August 17) surprise release of Everything Must Go (Vol. 1) stings a little. It feels like a response to the final blow to a man’s psyche; waving the white flag of defeat (technically the truce flag). More music’s supposedly coming soon, but the title and frantic advertisement of the project exudes the same kind of desperation that comprises those god-awful furniture store ads exclaiming that their final sale is, indeed, final. Cartoon cutouts of ringleader-era T-Pain are stashed on either side of an overly-energetic comedian named Funny Mike, doing his best to prepare us for unreleased T-Pain music. At nearly two minutes, the commercial overstays its welcome (seriously, when have you ever watched a furniture commercial that’s longer than thirty seconds?). And it’s a shame too because Everything Must Go (Vol. 1) does the exact opposite. Running for the space of 13 tracks, T-Pain’s unreleased songs are concise and to the point. He manages to prove that there’s still plenty of life left in his career and a plethora of Auto-Tune uses undiscovered by the masses that still exist within the technology. It’s not all the way perfect, but Everything Must Go Vol. 1 proves that 2 Chainz isn’t one of the only artists of the previous generation that’s able to musically age like wine.

Judging the quality of T-Pain’s work is easy, in retrospect. From 2006 to 2008, he was creating the standard to which similar artists and songs would be measured. Now that we’re in an age removed from his governing domain, and the technology has been taken farther and farther in his absence, we can objectively look at his past work to assess it with a proper ear. Everything Must Go (Vol. 1) is able to be honestly judged because it’s coming now instead of a decade ago, so when you think that something sounds good, it really sounds good. And when it doesn’t, well, it just doesn’t. Opener “Like Bam” falls into the latter category. Aside from being weak, it sounds dated. T-Pain’s punchlines fall flat (“My shit be hotter than Africa”) and he proves in the space of two minutes that he’s much more digestible when he sings. He rhymes “fashiggity” with “giggity giggity” invokes the wrath of Family Guy‘s Quagmire as he grows louder and angrier with his raps that seem to be aimed at a woman and his detractors at the same time. It’s a weird moment.

Luckily, things pick up from there. “Miami” is the tropical banger that is reminiscent of the best of T-Pain’s late 2000s pop hits. T-Pain returns to rapping but brings the Auto-Tune to make it about singing, as well. His version of melodic rap sounds much more visceral than many ten years younger than him. Ace Hood comes in with one of his I’m-not-breathing-but-bars-bars-and-more-bars flows that makes him an acquired taste. Luckily for me, I can stomach it. From there, T-Pain largely retreats from the rapping. The loving, heart-eyed man staring in amazement resurfaces from his hidden perch, determined to swoon a woman into lifelong commitment. “Rest Of Your Life” is a rather eclectic smash of random note presses, with a sexy bassline coming in that allows us to get the drawling, crooning T-Pain of old. An easy highlight, T-Pain’s technique sounds refined—his voice deeper, his notes crisper, the amateurish sheen that cropped up a decade ago sporadically is no longer evident. This is the adventurous side of Pain that makes his work so addicting. As he experiments with his vast array of vocal trickery, the listener is reminded of just how damn good he really is.

Even if you can’t remember what Pain did with Rappa Ternt Sanga and Epiphany a decade ago, you should be able to grasp faint memories of his ability to make the craziest beats that theoretically shouldn’t work, global phenomenons. “I’m ‘N Luv (Wit A Stripper)” took a five-note riff and made it one of the decade’s biggest hits. This go around, the sheer craziness of “Dance All Night” on Everything Must Go (Vol. 1) is the one to watch. T-Pain wraps each vocal with tender affection, double wrapping his delivery throughout the chorus to send chills down the spine as the frenetic drums spaz out in the background. The effect is chilling. “See What’s Happening” similarly sounds odd, off-beat even. This thing that Pain does with his voice—kind of drawling over the rough patches to make it seem as if he’s in control while it sounds dangerously close to collapsing—is immensely alluring thanks to the excessive Auto-Tune. In a day and age where Auto-Tune is always overused, it’s fascinating that Pain can still find the exact dosage that never contains too much sugar.

There’s a few worldly influences, chiefly Jamaican, contained within, but the lion’s share of the project’s time is devoted to recreating the sonic silkiness of his best records. “That’s Me” with Joey Bada$$ and Joe Budden is the weirdest song of the entire project, with the oddball, slightly boom-bap production being probably the absolute worst choice for Auto-Tune use. T-Pain’s singing-rapping here is grating, but the song is salvaged by a set of punchline prevalent verses from the two featured artists.

As it wraps, it feels complete. T-Pain’s artistry feels fresh as he searches for the gold in his nostalgia. When he strays, and tries to rap-rap (this isn’t a typo), it just doesn’t work. His punchlines are abysmal, delivery over-the-top and, while funny, it’s more of a Soulja Boy “My God, is this bad”-funny versus the Ludacris-“Ha, that’s clever” style that he’s going for. It’s clear that T-Pain still has “it,” he just needs not to stray too far. Nicki Minaj has been criticized for being stagnant recently, so it feels taboo saying this, but career solutions for artists aren’t transferrable; my Band-Aid won’t fit your wound. T-Pain needs to remain the same and keep giving us the love songs that double as both baby-making soundtracks and strip-club slow-dance epics; that’s what he’s known for and that’s what he’s good at.

More music may be coming from T-Pain soon and, if so, I hope it’s of the classic kind. T-Pain’s ploy for eminence, Everything Must Go (Vol. 1), is like a furniture sale with both new furniture and classic, best-selling pieces being advertised. The older stuff clearly looks better (sounds better). If T-Pain is smart, he’s already working on replicating what makes his old music sound so good. I’ll give him a hint: it’s not rapping. It’s clear that T-Pain has managed to capture lightning in a bottle again, and if he can continue to cultivate this aesthetic, he’ll have people shopping with him again in no time.

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