The early 2000s were a period of monumental change in music. With the transition from CDs to iTunes, the music industry’s center of gravity shifted away from the record labels and toward the tech companies.
The period between 2003 and 2007 was particularly chaotic, when the iTunes Store was open for business but smartphones didn’t exist yet. You listened to music on iPods and MP3 players. Phones, like the omnipresent Nokia 3310, were for games like Snake. But perhaps Nokia’s greatest legacy was its ring tones, which weren’t MP3s but rather minimalist versions of real songs that broke the music down to a few recognizable beats. As always, technology influenced culture, and music started to resemble the ring tones in what became known as “ring-tone rap,” also called “snap rap” for its seeming simplicity. And nobody did ring-tone rap better than T-Pain—even if he was unjustly maligned for it at the time.
An early mention of T-Pain in The New York Times has critic Kelefa Sanneh refer to him as an “R&B cyborg,” a nod to his frequent use of Auto-Tune. Everyone from Usher to Jay-Z hated on T-Pain, whose songs were pretty wholesome ones about falling in love (with a stripper). The iPhone’s release in 2007, along with Jay-Z’s “D.O.A (Death of Auto-Tune)” in 2009, helped bring an end to the cyborg era. But T-Pain’s latest album, On Top of the Covers, shows what we were missing the whole time.
T-Pain emerged from the Auto-Tune era relatively unscathed. He moved on to become a streamer on Twitch, where he trades stories about meeting Prince with viewers who watch him play video games. But On Top, an album of covers, gives the impression that he has some unfinished business.
The choices that go into a cover album say as much about the artist as do the covers themselves. What T-Pain is trying to say with On Top is that nobody knew what he could do back then. Every song is a show stopper, starting with the Civil Rights era anthem, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” T-Pain isn’t as smooth as Cooke—nobody is—but as those heavenly strings start off the track, he puts so much heart into the track, first letting the Auto-Tune form a warm hum of a background and then taking it away to let the emphasis hit on Cooke’s plaintive, “Brother, help me please.” It’s a breathtaking rendition.
Not everything on the album is quite so transcendent. Sticking with the ballads, T-Pain covers Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” a showcase of vocal power that was everywhere in 2014 and remains a below-average song. There’s also a lovely cover of the MOR-classic “Sharing The Night Together,” which leads into a nice instrumental, “Skrangs (in K Major Sus),” although both feel a bit like filler on what is only an eight-track album.
But if there’s filler, it’s fine. Everything in On Top is good, and half of it is incredible. The covers of “A Change,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” and Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” are remarkable. T-Pain’s generous, happy-go-lucky personality blends naturally with the populism of “Don’t Stop Believin’” and he brings an underdog’s spirit to “That’s Life.” While T-Pain doesn’t bring Ozzy’s sheer anger to his cover of “War Pigs,” that’s OK. It’s a triumph in its own right.
At their best, these songs feel like a Twitch chat where everyone has just watched an epic win. They’re celebratory, and it feels like you’re singing with all your friends. The man who helped make Auto-Tune happen had pipes all along, it turns out. And he wants you to join in.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.