Let’s blame T-Pain

It’s official: the auto-tune is part of our generation’s musical zeitgeist. For all we know, it could be the synthesizer of the ’00s. Whether or not this technological amusement will be an embarrassing joke 10 years down the road, though, has yet to be decided. For now, we have to live with it.

This Tuesday, the leader of the auto-tune movement released his third album. T-Pain’s “Thr33 Ringz,” a large body of club tracks and R&B grooves, is essentially a microcosm of how much auto-tune has become entrenched in hip-hop and R&B.

The usual mechanized quality pervades “Thr33 Ringz”, an album not too dissimilar from T-Pain’s earlier records, “Epiphany” and “Rappa Ternt Sanga”. All the typical T-Pain elements can be found: the abrupt switch from energetic club jams to soft (robo-)soulful ballads, the raunchy world of strippers, lap dances, etc.

What makes this album different from its predecessors is the large cast of guest artists on the songs, a Who’s Who of hip hop and R&B that in a way have become disciples of T-Pain’s studio techniques.

A lesson in ‘vocodership’ can be found on “Can’t Believe It,” a grind-friendly single in which Lil Wayne sings his verse with a clean, computerized warble. Lately, Lil Wayne has started using Auto-tune on a couple of his projects, including a upcoming album called “Luv Sawngz.” Wayne has even said that he sees himself now as an R&B singer rather than a rapper, overlooking the fact that while he’s a gifted lyricist, he doesn’t have the vocal chops of T-Pain. He’s only got the vocoder.

In another cameo, Kanye West shows up to spit a verse on “Therapy,” a light R&B track that strays from the hard-hitting club jams preceding it. Kanye’s own newly released singles, “Love Lockdown” and “Heartless,” are somber affairs in which the Louis Vuitton Don spills his soul in Auto-tune with the drone of a lovesick cyborg. The production is impeccable, but the artificiality of Kanye’s voice downgrades his characteristic bravado as well as the weight of his lyrics. Kanye has reportedly recorded his new album entirely in Auto-tune. Fans are less than enthused.

How does the godfather feel about all this? On “Karaoke,” T-Pain fervently derides this his imitators, howling “Pain he originate I gotta be the best/ Hundred motherfuckers trying to do what I dids.” Yet he explicitly condones the actions of Kanye West and Lil Wayne in what appears to be an act of friendship. These are artists that he works with frequently, so it would clearly be tactless to lump them into the impersonator category. Still, there’s something a little off about such exceptionalism.

But no matter how much he claims to be the ‘ringleader’ of the genre, as he states at the beginning of the album, T-Pain has no control over who uses auto-tune in their songs. Anyone can now have vocal chords of gold, albeit digital gold.

If this really is the case, R&B looks to have a shaky future. As rappers like Lil Wayne and Kanye West use auto-tune to rebrand themselves as crooners, the traditional concept of R&B will begin to erode. The problem is that there is no distinctive timbre in Auto-tune, no sign of human emotion that draws the listener in with its raw feeling. Could you imagine if Luther Vandross sang “A House is not a Home” with auto-tune? R&B can’t be rhythm and blues once there’s no blues involved.

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