T-Pain, the star R&B crooner and producer from Tallahassee, has body issues. T-Pain sings almost exclusively about fleshly desires, with a degree of detail that marks him as a gourmand. "I'm addicted to the way she makes her stomach roll/ 5'6/ She thick," he coos in "Yo Stomach," from his latest album, Epiphany. In nearly all of his songs, T-Pain plays the part of an awestruck ogler, marveling at women's bellies, thighs, hips, hair, and, when he's really feeling romantic, secretions. He's less a poet than a reporter, leaving little—OK, nothing—to the imagination. A new song about oral sex is helpfully entitled "69," but lest you miss the point, T-Pain spells things out. "She was sucking on me," he sings. "And I was licking on her."
That's fairly standard sex-addled R&B, but T-Pain's act has a twist. While his songs are awash in the muck and musk of the body, T-Pain's physical self is half-erased from the proceedings. T-Pain sings using a talk box, or some synthesizer-simulated version thereof—a gizmo that transforms the human voice into a kind of robo-drone. (T-Pain has been vague about the specific device he uses, and it remains a much-debated point on gearhead message boards.) The talk box, and its cousin the vocoder, have a rich pop history, powering hit songs by Peter Frampton, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, and, more recently, 2Pac and Kanye West, via Daft Punk. The most dedicated practitioner of the art was Roger Troutman, the leader of the '80s band Zapp, who explored the erotic merging of man and automaton in talk-box-spiked funk numbers such as "More Bounce to the Ounce" and "Computer Love."
Troutman never broke through to full-fledged mainstream stardom, but T-Pain has taken the talk-box sound to the top of the charts. Epiphany entered the Billboard Hot 200 seven weeks ago at No. 1. To date, T-Pain has released four solo singles, "I'm Sprung" (2005), "I'm N Luv (Wit A Stripper)" (2006), "Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin')" (2007), and "Bartender" (2007). All of them have cracked the Top 10. Like Akon, the other ubiquitous new soul man, T-Pain first landed on the radio airwaves singing refrains for rappers, and he continues to do booming business in that capacity. (The day may not be far off when every American pop song features either T-Pain or Akon—or, like the current hit "Bartender," both.)
In short, T-Pain has emerged as the single most successful cyborg in music history. The question is: why, and why now? What exactly do R. Kelly, Bow Wow, Plies, Fabolous—and, if you believe T-Pain, every exotic dancer south of the Mason-Dixon—like so much about this Floridian with Wyclef Jean's dreadlocks and C-3PO's voice?
The simplest answer is sonic novelty. Three decades after Frampton Comes Alive, the sound of a singing droid still carries a futuristic frisson. T-Pain's innovation is overkill. Whereas most robo-pop tunes are one-offs—think of Cher's 1999 smash "Believe," with its computer-enhanced vocal trills—T-Pain follows Troutman in using the talk box in song after song, turning a stunt into a style. Troutman, who died in 1999, was ahead of his time, but T-Pain had the good fortune to arrive in a hip-hop-dominated pop climate, when minute production innovations explode into viral styles and new stars are minted overnight. A few years back, at a time when antique soul music samples were déclassé, a Chicago record producer had a brainstorm: Why not speed up the samples to create a kind of Stax Records-on-helium effect? Soon the producer, Kanye West, was the hottest thing in hip-hop, hailed as the godfather of "chipmunk soul." T-Pain has followed a similar path, securing a distinct, very lucrative niche as the Man With the Robot Voice.
It's also a sound that speaks to the zeitgeist. The "Computer Love" that Troutman and Zapp sang about in 1985 is a lot less theoretical today, and in T-Pain, Web 2.0 has found its romantic balladeer, a disembodied voice for an age of virtual hook-ups, "sexting," and cam-to-cam chat. With James Brown, you could practically hear the sweat coursing down the microphone stand. But T-Pain really sounds like a sex machine.
T-Pain's voice is hardly without feeling. There is an ache in his computerized coo: He isn't just horny, he's lovelorn. But T-Pain represents a kind of symbolic severing of African-American music from its traditional emotionalism, from its fervent gospel roots—and not just because he rhymes "the church and deacon" with "licky leaking shit." During "I'm N Luv (Wit A Stripper)" and "Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin')," the impassioned melismas that have powered black popular singing for decades are smoothed into synthetic gasps. In T-Pain's music, the last traces of Sunday morning's church service have been deleted from Saturday night's club anthem.
In the end, T-Pain's robo-shtick may be little more than a lark. It's a good lark, though. One hesitates to ascribe wit to the author of "69," but I can't help hearing a topical joke here: At a time of rampant Auto-Tune usage, when the tone-deaf routinely punch up perfect pitch, isn't T-Pain being cheeky by disappearing into his circuitry? If Paris Hilton can use a computer to impersonate a singer, what's left for a singer like T-Pain—and he can sing—but to impersonate a computer?