1. When T-Pain and I spoke, it was about two months after Jay Z did the "Death of Autotune" track. I was like, "…So …'Death of Auto-Tune'?" T-Pain wasn't an outright jerk about me asking, but he definitely wasn’t excited to answer. I remember being surprised by how curt he was because he was wearing a top hat, which had led me to believe that he was a fundamentally playful person. I mean, if you wear a top hat, you're kind of not allowed to get mad at anyone for anything, except maybe your friends for letting you wear a top hat.
2. When we finished our interview, he offered his hand for a handshake. I countered by going for a high-five (to which he smilingly complied). I did this specifically so that afterward I could tell my wife that I'd high-fived a hand that held a Grammy (he'd been nominated for seven up through 2009 and won one for Kanye West’s "Good Life," on which he sang the hook). Her response when I told her: "You also high-fived a hand that's held T-Pain's dick." I'd not considered that angle.
And the third, much larger thing about T-Pain that surprised me when it dawned on me later:
3. T-Pain might be rap’s greatest all-time male hook-singer.
I'm aware how silly that sentence is. The lineage of hook men in rap basically stretches all the way back to the origins of rap, back to Juice Crew’s TJ Swan in the ’80s. And there’s always been a new VERY IMPORTANT GUY that’s shown up every few years to take over the duties, from the guys who have framed iconic tracks (Roger Troutman on Tupac and Dre’s “California Love,” for example) to the guys who sing-songed their way to cult-hero status (Texas’s Devin the Dude, Georgia’s Sleepy Brown, etc.)
Plus, we all seem to reflexively understand how uncool T-Pain is, which means we all reflexively disregard him. All the same, maybe he really is the greatest. Consider: Over a four year period, 2006 to 2010, more than fifty songs featuring T-Pain hit number one on a Billboard chart. FIFTY. Do you know how many number-one singles of any kind Nas has had, hooks or otherwise? ZERO. If T-Pain’s not the greatest hook-singer (though “greatest” would imply there is an implicit Quality Control trait to consider, in which case the selection is, without question, Nate Dogg), he's at least the most successful, which has to mean something if you’re trying to figure out who the best is at something.
Several others to consider: Akon’s very unstoppable 2006-to-2008 campaign means he follows not too far behind Nate and T-Pain in the discussion. (Wikipedia says: Akon “is currently credited with over 300 guest appearances and more than 35 Billboard Hot 100 songs.”) R. Kelly, responsible for some world-class hook moments in rap (personal favorites: 2001’s “Fiesta (Remix)” with Jay Z and Boo & Gotti; Cassidy’s 2003 “Hotel”), gets included. I suppose you have to include Pharrell in the conversation (Snoop’s “Beautiful” in 2003; Jay Z’s “Excuse Me Miss” in 2003; Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass” in 2000, etc. And if he gets included, then so do 50 Cent (his work on his own songs of course, but also Lil' Kim’s “Magic Stick” in 2003, The Game’s “Hate It or Love It” in 2005 and infinity others) and Lil Wayne (really, I wouldn’t be terribly upset if you gave him the title based solely on his superheroic contribution to B.G.’s 1999 hit “Bling Bling.”) That eventually leads to Drake, the best hook man of his generation and the first to truly coalesce singing and rapping. And then he, in turn, eventually leads to Future.
Future is Atlanta’s current rap king, a 30-year-old savant who has managed to reboot the tired auto-tune sound and mash it into something entirely new. Whereas T-Pain’s manipulation of the technology was almost always celebratory, and whereas Kanye, the only other person able to make it sound interesting, used it for 808s & Heartbreak to create a mechanical dissonance that separated him from everyone else on planet Earth, Future combines it with a bizarro croon to synthesize how he feels, then project that out into the cosmos for the aliens. He stretches and deteriorates his words until they’re less like words, more like raw energy and reactive emotions.
When “Tony Montana,” the frenzied first single from his debut album Pluto, popped nationally in 2011, it felt like 80 percent a fluke. When he did it again shortly after on the remix of “Magic” with T.I., it still felt a little accidental. But then came “Same Damn Time” and after that “Turn on the Lights” (all from Pluto, mind you) and there was no more ignoring it. Despite delays for Honest and a rush by rappers to mimic his sound, he has continued to grow into the genre’s premiere hook voice. When he and Drake appeared on the hook for Lil Wayne’s “Love Me” together in January of 2013, it felt like a clear passing of the baton, even if Drake didn’t intend for it to happen. It also felt like a tsunami of rap-nerd boners hitting the Internet.
Future has, in a very short amount of time, made his drunken, robotic cackle an indispensable, undeniable part of the new rap sound. He has the first-, third-, fourth-, sixth- and eighth-best hooks of the last 16 months (in order: Ace Hood’s “Bugatti”; “Move That Dope,” “Shit,” “Honest,” and “Karate Chop”) and the last four of those appear on Honest alongside at least two other mega hooks (“I Won” and “I Be U.”)
So long as he doesn’t start wearing top hats, he should be fine.
I mean, come on, bro, a fucking top hat?