It’s been exactly a decade since the release of T-Pain’s Rappa Ternt Sanga.
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Not only are we still living in that post-T-Pain world, but 2015 in particular has served as one long reminder to his legacy. A legacy that, while frowned upon by many music critics, is cherished by anyone who spends their time in the club, or who generally lives life with a smile on their face.
The list of artists who have emerged recently and are either a rapper-turned-singer or singer-turned-rapper – Fetty Wap, Young Thug, Future, Tink, Dej Loaf, Rich Homie Quan, K Camp, Bryson Tiller, Tory Lanez amongst many – is basically endless. They embody so much of what T-Pain started with Rappa Ternt Sanga and then perfected on Epiphany a couple of years later. The looseness of expression and the never-ending space in the records of today is defiantly T-Pain. Those subtle auto-tuned melodies that ingrain themselves into your subconscious? All Pain. Those luxurious drops in the clubs, letting that 808 do its work? That’s Teddy Pain again. Most importantly, the explicit synergy between rapper and singer – a marked leap forward from what Lauryn and Wyclef were doing in the previous decade – is a debt that simply needs to be recognized.
For context, the middle of the 2000s was a transitional time in rap and R&B. As the ROC, Ruff Ryders and Dipset (hell, even the St. Lunatics!) gave way to Wayne, Jeezy, T.I. and the new Southern rap establishment, rap shifted in a way that was unrecoverable for many of its previous heroes. R&B too saw a fitting full stop to the previous era with Usher’s undisputed Confessions. The artists that emerged a year later – Chris Brown, Trey Songz and Keyshia Cole – claimed spots that were up for grabs as a previous generation of crooners aged.
Crucially, 2005 was a year that artists who existed in their own space could dominate. The Game flourished in a (then) commercially barren LA scene, Houston finally got its commercial dues with Chamillionaire, Mike Jones and Paul Wall, whilst Kanye and Jeezy battled it out for, depending on your perspective or region, the definitive new rap album of the year. This is the climate in which T-Pain dropped ‘I’m Sprung’, and despite being from the UK I was fortunate enough to experience his music for the first time in the way it was truly intended.
Spending the summer of 2005 between a few cities in the South, writing about Lil Wayne (The Carter II was due – then subsequently pushed back to December after the Mannie Fresh fallout) and then finally hitting Atlanta for the release of Jeezy’s Thug Motivation 101, it was in an ATL club that I first heard ‘I’m Sprung’. It stopped me dead in my tracks. The DJs had been running through the hits of the moment – everything from Common’s ‘Go’ and Paul Wall’s ‘Sittin Sideways’ to massive local records like ‘Nextel Chirp’ and the obligatory snap and crunk anthems – but when that bass dropped I had one overwhelming feeling: frustration. How did I not know this record that had, to my mind, just murdered everything that had already been played that night? I swallowed my pride quickly to ask the bar staff (who were singing along) to please tell me what the hell I was missing. One girl dutifully wrote down on a napkin: “T-Pain – ‘I’m Sprung’ – Rappa Ternt Sanga“. What followed was a further few weeks of frustration as I asked for what was very clearly a local independent release in every single store, in various cities, to no avail. It was three weeks later in New York that the newly imprinted Konvict Musik 12” version of ‘I’m Sprung’ appeared. Akon knew what the hell was up.
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With hindsight, Rappa Ternt Sanga was far from the finished article. Whilst ‘I’m Sprung’ and ‘Going Thru A Lot’ still sound futuristic, tracks like ‘Let’s Get It On’ could easily have been snipped from a 2001 Philly’s Most Wanted tape. T-Pain had clearly absorbed everything that had come before, from the kind of bass heavy ATL R&B records that So So Def specialized in to the country rap of Nappy Roots and Nelly, and he filtered it all through his unique Tallahassee lens. It was no surprise that it was Akon, an artist who had been making similar moves for years, who signed him; T-Pain took it to the radio, like his label boss, but also kept a foot firmly in the club.
For the next two years T-Pain’s hooks dominated the charts and the club, providing a blueprint for contemporary mainstream rap. Sure, there were always singers on rap records and rappers on R&B records, but the hooks that T-Pain delivered felt almost as if he had taken over the spirit of the artists themselves. Even Lil Wayne, who was already widely popular at this point, knew he had to basically become T-Pain on ‘Lollipop’ to truly lodge himself into the public’s hearts.
T-Pain’s real breakout was ‘I’m In Luv (Wit A Stripper)’ (and the truly magnificent remix, with Twista, Akon, Pimp C, Paul Wall, R. Kelly, MJG and Too $hort), which hit number five on the US Billboard Hot 100 and even nudged its way into the UK Top 40. Ten years on, it’s about as contemporary a record as anything right now, both in terms of subject matter and delivery. Things had changed, and although Rappa Ternt Sanga was never going to be T-Pain’s masterwork (that was still to come), it lit the touch-paper for the huge shift that happened only moments later, with Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak and subsequently Drake’s So Far Gone.
Frustratingly, the plaudits are fleeting, underwhelming and generally misplaced, like the hugely patronizing, reactionary, “Oh he can really sing?” thinkpieces after his NPR Tiny Desk concert. Anyone who’d been to any T-Pain show or understood rhythmic music already knew this anyway. Like all great R&B, the melodies and hooks are timeless, original and simply undeniable; they sound as fresh as the day they were unleashed, but are seemingly difficult to react to in words. Pure feeling and joy is hard to express in critical wording. Perhaps this is why few have rushed to place him in the list of modern greats when they’re assembling Kanye, Kendrick or Drake, but this is exactly where he belongs.
In fact, he’s bigger than that. T-Pain is a one-man musical movement, and his influence is shining brighter than ever. There’s no need to be nostalgic or long for a T-Pain comeback that might recapture some bygone age – we’re still living it, just ask any rapper ternt sanga releasing music today. Instead let’s celebrate one of the purest and most honest artists of his generation, who’s had a 10 year run of influence that few others could imagine. Still sprung.