It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
This piece was originally published in 2017.
I don't have any good T-Pain stories.
I wish I did; it feels like the kind of thing you're supposed to have about your hometown celebrities. When people from Atlanta talk about their local celebs, it feels littered with these salacious and personal bits of he-say, she-say — like they're members of the family that you gossip about. I don't have that. Growing up in Tallahassee, the same town as Pain, all I have are loose connections — knowing somebody who knows somebody who knew him — and tales about the people he left behind when he got big. But that's boring and easy; every celebrity has people in their life that swear they left them behind. In reality, all we share are the swampy summer days and quiet, dark woods that color Tallahassee. We share the bond of traveling on the same roads.
T-Pain's biggest claim to fame is using Auto-Tune in his music. It's not that he was the first to do it, or even the first to use it at such an extreme level that it distorted his voice to sound like a robot. But he was the first to make that sound essential to his style as an artist. Since T-Pain's major label debut in 2005 with the album "Rappa Ternt Sanga," he's been a cultural force and R&B's perennial goofball and charmer. Even when the novelty of the robotic effect wore off, you were left with a true crooner and thoughtful writer packaged in a doughy physique, tidied up dreads, mineraloid jet black skin, and the most infectious smile. He looks and reminds you of a cousin. He feels like so many people I came across in Tallahassee.
I have scant memories of Nappy Headz , a rap group that featured Pain before he went solo. Nappy Headz wasn't particularly memorable; the group made generic, early-2000s rap songs of the day—full of twangy country samples and heavy bass. The first "big" solo T-Pain song would come in 2004, in the form of a remixed version of Akon's first single, "Locked Up." The song, titled "I'm Fucked Up," was a pretty great showcase for Pain: he exhibited a rawer version of his hoarse accordion voice, rapping deftly about his troubles and depression in a way that was both passionate and humorous. The Auto-Tune vocal pitch modulation wasn't there yet, but even with his naked voice, it was obvious that he was a diamond in the rough. Akon himself took notice, immediately signing T-Pain to his Konvict Music label.
Then came "I'm Sprung," a true gem that seemed to appear in the air like magic. Not only was it a really good song, it was fucking weird. The first time I heard it was a real "What the fuck is this?" moment. It was catchy, dreamy, and extremely odd, with T-Pain's soulful crooning drowning in the computerized Auto-Tune effect. Imagine if at the end of Terminator 2, while Arnold Schwarzenegger was being lowered into the molten magma, he started singing a seductive R&B love song as his machinery was destroyed. If you pitched the idea of "I'm Sprung" on paper, no one would think it was a good idea. It shouldn't have worked, but it did, gloriously.
I was 16 when "I'm Sprung" dropped, full of wonder and hormones, faux-jaded because jaded looked cool, and convinced that the coming school year would be the one when I found love (a summer routine for me). Most importantly, I was stuck in a dead end town where the stars at night were brighter than the opportunities. Tallahassee isn't special: it's an Anytown USA where kids get drunk and fool around in parking lots because there's nothing else to do, where the adults moved because they wanted an affordable home and a safe environment and were rewarded with monotony and divorces—haunted by the life that should've been. Tallahassee is quiet—not just literally, but in its very essence, a patch of civilization surrounded by a swampy, sticky jungle. If you're not a college student drowning in cheap alcohol between exams, there's not much for kids to do. It's the kind of place where spending a lovely night inside a car at an empty Wal-Mart parking lot counts as a date. Or you might take your paramour to Lake Ella, if you're feeling particularly romantic.
I knew I was better than that town. I knew I was too unique, creative, and thoughtful to be pigeonholed there. Tallahassee is incredibly low stakes; a place for the working class to build an easy-to-sustain life, and everyone not in college is in bed by 10 p.m. The idea that there is more to life always dangles over you, but with enough time, most can lull themselves into a sense of security within the comfort of small town Americana. For teenaged me, I had to know what more looked like. I had to escape the feeling of being shackled away from culture.
I think T-Pain felt that too; he must have—Tallahassee Pain is right there in his name. I remember the secondhand stories about his struggles in school. In the song "Ridge Road," he sang: "Growing up wasn't easy for me, for my mama, for my daddy, life just wasn't happy at all/ Started out when I was eight years, and it blew up right behind, god just couldn't find me no way." No matter how much you love home, it is also the site of some of your deepest pain. Wanting to escape that feels natural to me.
T-Pain was important because he was ours. It wasn't much at the time, but it was something. Against the odds, he kept succeeding in the mainstream, and it felt like maybe we could finally be a blip on the map to people who care about things that aren't college football. It was wonderful to see someone from Tallahassee make it big, but it was also incredibly surreal. To this day I still get slightly weirded out by non-Florida T-Pain fans. He feels like a local celebrity whose music could only be enjoyed by those growing up the same way, in the same place. It's irrational, but he still feels like a secret just between us. But I know that's not true. He crossed over, became the world's artist.
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Between "Rappa Ternt Sanga" and "Epiphany," T-Pain scored the coveted role of R&B-guest-feature-on-a-rap-song, appearing on some of the biggest tracks of the aughts including "Two Step" remix by DJ Unk, "Blame It" by Jamie Foxx, "The Boss" by Rick Ross, and "Low" by Flo Rida. Even when he wasn't appearing on records himself, other artists emulated his heavily Auto-Tuned sing-rapping style.
One of the most memorable nights of my life came in the summer of 2007, when T-Pain hosted a Tallahassee homecoming concert to celebrate his second album, "Epiphany." This was the summer after I graduated high school. I never found love there, and I was mentally preparing for my journey into what I assumed would be adulthood.
Like T-Pain's career in general, the concert felt surreal to me, because I was watching the biggest thing in music emerge from a town that I knew to be dead weight. The whole city could've been at the sold-out Leon County Civic Center, to which generations of Tallahasseeans migrated to languish in Pain's success. Familial in vibe and free of the usual pyrotechnics, it felt like a family reunion, the way we danced and sang in unison. The show had the rawness of a local rap concert and the aura of a child's birthday. It was an incredible night, and it was ours.
Leaving the show, I was unsure that we'd ever have an event like this again. It was not a regular occurrence to have an artist of T-Pain's stature in our city. Since then, Tallahassee has hosted some big concerts and celebrities, but nothing that felt so unique, so perfect, as that one night.
Small towns make you feel isolated, like you're in a cult kept away from culture. There's no real "scene" in a place like Tallahassee, just a bunch of artists and creators scattered amongst the trees, lost in the moss, dreaming of escaping to bigger cities. Hope and ambition are the only lights in this swamp. Choosing to stay, for college, felt like a dismissal of those dreams in order to make everyone else happy. But I never stopped believing, and T-Pain's music was there for me, counteracting that quicksand feeling, even if the man himself was off enjoying the spoils of success far away. So much of college—the sweaty basement parties, late night socials, and campus events—were draped with his velvety, over-Auto-Tuned singing or his rough, Little Rascals-style rapping. You could not escape his voice, and nobody had any real desire to, here or in Hollywood, even as the backlash kicked into full force.
In 2009, Jay-Z would release "DOA (Death of Auto-Tune)," a moderately decent song that took aim at hip-hop's latest fixation and its brightest star, T-Pain. The biggest rapper in the world was drawing a line in the sand, between what was authentic and what was artifice. "DOA" didn't kill Auto-Tune or T-Pain, but it certainly helped turn the tables. Kanye West, a frequent Pain collaborator, would eventually take the style for himself and use it to tap into his inner torment and heartache. With T-Pain, Auto-Tune was a fun novelty but with Kanye, it was considered art. So it goes. One day you're a star and then, before you know it, your day in the spotlight is over and everyone is running away with the style you popularized.
In my own way, I know what it's like. There are two true benefits of living in a small town: 1) there's always a void to fill and 2) almost everyone knows each other somehow. For a quick minute, I was known on campus as "the cameraman," the go-to photographer. I was notable and it felt good, even if I pretended not to care. But the next year, there were people with newer cameras and more competition and better branding. You tell yourself that people running with the thing that set you apart doesn't bother you—and it probably doesn't—until you become forgotten.
For all intents and purposes, T-Pain was fine. He was still making music, he was doing cartoons, he was active on social media. He was maintaining. But it was different after the backlash. The first indication that Pain wasn't alright was an open casting call for a music video he was shooting in Tallahassee, our shared Anytown USA. That seemed weird. For all his claims of loving the city, Pain had never done much for Tallahassee beyond the occasional concert. Even his first music video, "I'm Sprung," was shot in Atlanta, and the producers worked to make it look like it could be Tallahassee, if you had a low definition television and you squinted hard enough. That Pain would now shoot a video featuring Tallahassee college kids at a renovated Greco-Roman-style club called The Moon felt more than suspicious. This was the moment I knew it was over. The way that I'd always known his career, the hope it held out up till then, couldn't last. Pain had been the biggest thing in music—he'd won Grammys and toured the world. And now he was back here in Tallahassee, the city that doesn't stop sucking you in.
When I finally got away from Tallahassee, it was a shock to my system. I moved to the Washington, D.C. area: a place where life moves faster, the buildings are bigger, there is no Publix, and the things that made you special back home make you seem insignificant. D.C. is a large city full of transplants who all have dreams, want success, and have the tools to get it. I was just another guy.
I was depressed without my support system; I hated my job; and my bed was a mattress on the floor of my one-bedroom apartment. This is where I spent my nights teetering on the edge between suicidal misery and the glimmer of hope that a different life was near. It got better, eventually, because I had no choice but to make it better. That's how I'm wired. I started freelancing and finding joy in creation, and I wouldn't allow myself to quit on my dreams. The way I'm wired, the way I think, is the part of me that's most like T-Pain.
Remembering back to those early days, I think about a video of T-Pain on NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series. Watching him sing some of his most notable songs live and Auto-Tune-less, with only a piano's accompaniment, was a joyful, tearful reminder of my youth, and of an artist who never got his due. Hearing Pain power through ballad versions of club hits, I was happy that he found his peace and refused to quit. But beyond that, I remembered being a teenager, and then a young adult, unsure and unimpressed with the empty parking lots full of horny teens and the houses filled with middle class malaise, in a small capital city surrounded by jungle. Even back then, even lacking confidence, I knew the city was beneath me. Listening to T-Pain, Tallahassee's hero, I fantasized about my own chance to escape.