Although auto-tune has been around in some form or another since the 1950’s, it wasn’t until the pop craze of the late 90’s and noughties that it entered mainstream music. In the mid to late noughties artists such as T-Pain, Lil Wayne and Kanye West introduced the voice-altering mechanism to hip-hop as a way of giving their music more melodic vocals. Classic hip-hop was in decline and pop-infused rap albums such as Graduation and Tha Carter III were being released to critical acclaim. T-Pain was a figurehead of this movement, and was inspired by a line in a Jennifer Lopez song to record a whole album in auto-tune, leading to the release of Rapper Ternt Senga in 2005. Kanye, always being one for innovation, fully realised auto-tune’s capacity to express extreme emotion in 808’s and Heartbreak in 2008. Many criticised his use of auto-tune, saying it was to compensate for his inability to sing, and that auto-tune didn’t belong in hip-hop. Jay-Z and the writers of South Park famously criticised it in the form of song, with D. O. A. (Death of Auto-Tune) and Gay Fish respectively. But auto-tune survived, and it seems like it’s here to stay. Today many laud 808’s and Heartbreak, both in its own right and as a major influence in the creation of dancehall pop, which has produced songs such as Drake’s One Dance and Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You.
So where does T-Pain’s OBLiViON fit into this narrative? Faheem Rashad Najm, aka Tallahassee Pain, aka T-Pain is a rapper from Florida, best known for his use of auto-tune to create club hits such as Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’) and Flo-Rida’s Low. It’s been said that if Jay-Z ever kills auto-tune, T-Pain will be around to resurrect it. The problem is that auto-tune really doesn’t need any help right now; recently it’s been used to great effect by some of the most well-known hip-hop and R&B artists. Frank Ocean made use of auto-tune to reach awesome emotive heights on Blonde’s climactic Futura Free, and Chance the Rapper used it to give melodic texture to his poetic and soulful rapping on Coloring Book. T-Pain’s OBLiViON stands out like a sore thumb compared to these projects, most noticeably in its use of auto-tune. Whereas Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper use auto-tune selectively to achieve heightened emotion or better sounding vocals, T-Pain uses auto-tune constantly in OBLiViON. While this gimmick might be entertaining for the first song or two, it quickly becomes repetitive and boring, especially in conjunction with the album’s complete lack of conceptual imagination and its uninventive production.
It’s been six years since the release of T-Pain’s last solo project, rEVOLVEr, in which he tried to ‘evolve’ (as demonstrated not-so-subtly in the project’s title). The album landed with mixed reviews, with many claiming that the record’s features were the only thing keeping it afloat, as T-Pain’s auto-tuned voice became, ironically, monotonous after a while. OBLiViON suffers from the same problem, except there are fewer guest verses, so the listener must endure the monotony even more – at least it’s better than listening to T-Pain’s voice without any electronic manipulation, as on the song Goal Line. At least, the album boasts an impressive list of features, including Wale, Ty Dolla $ign, Ne-Yo and… Chris Brown.
Chris Brown’s presence on the album is symptomatic of the project’s misogynistic themes, and by extension a broader lack of creative ambition in its content. There are two main themes on OBLiViON: money and women (though T-Pain never refers to them as such). On the song Pu$$y On The Phone, T-Pain delivers one of the more striking disgusting lines on the record, “[If they hear me having sex] The neighbours gon’ think I’m a wife-beater”. On Goal Line he uses the word “whore” as an ad-lib. T-Pain feeds the stereotypes of misogyny and obsession with wealth that surround hip-hop, and as an avid fan of the genre, I find this incredibly sad. The fact that the likes of Chris Brown, XXXTENTACION and Kodak Black still have music careers after evidence of physical abuse towards women shows that the industry doesn’t care – T-Pain clearly doesn’t care.
Sticking one tacky moody song on the end of the project doesn’t make it an album about depression – OBLiViON is a collection of songs about sex and money created as a cheap shot to score some club hits and cash. Auto-tune can be used well, and it can be used poorly, as demonstrated in this project. But auto-tune isn’t the problem with OBLiViON – its main problem is the absence of even a spark of imagination in T-Pain’s use of auto-tune, as well as in the its themes and production. The only song I enjoyed somewhat off this record was Cee Cee From DC, because of its interesting production and a killer verse from Wale, but T-Pain’s unimaginative hook still lets the song down. OBLiViON suffers from a lack of originality and regressive themes that contribute to wider issues within club culture and the music industry. It’s like every negative stereotype about hip-hop rolled into one, terrible mess.