Although T-Pain has quickly established himself as hip-hop’s answer to Zapp’s Roger Troutman, this hitmaker is hardly an overnight success. With musical roots extending back to childhood, the singer/songwriter has parlayed his unique combination of heavy bass beats, sweet melodies, modern lyrics and voice effects via Auto-tune and the vocoder into a promising career.
Born in Tallahassee, Florida to Muslim parents, T-Pain — born Faheem Najm — had music in his blood. His father was a rapper he describes as “like Kurtis Blow.” By age 10, the self-described target of bullies had put aside his wooden dinosaur collectables and reworked his bedroom into a small studio. Armed with a keyboard, a beat machine and an 8-track, Faheem got to work preparing for his future.
Years later, Faheem — whose stage moniker “T-Pain” means “Tallahassee Pain” or “Teddy Pain” in homage to Teddy Pendergrass — was a fully committed recording artist. He was a member of a rap group called Nappy Headz, a clique that enjoyed moderate success with the song “Robbery.” T-Pain’s affiliation with that group would be short-lived, though, perhaps because, as he has said, he was growing tired of the walls between hip-hop and soul.
In 2004, Akon, the Senegalese singer with a hip-hop bent, released his song “Locked Up.” Shortly thereafter, an industrious T-Pain recorded a response, “F***ed Up.” The song got heavy rotation in his home state, and, naturally, the bootleg crept out of its local market. In time, the song made its way into the ears of Akon, in Atlanta. Impressed, Akon signed T-Pain to his Konvict Music imprint, and suddenly, at 19, T-Pain was a solo artist.
It wasn’t long after signing a deal — about 10 months, in fact — before T-Pain had crafted his first big solo hit, “I’m Sprung,” in 2005, which established him as a contemporary r&b artist with a stand-out vision and sound. Lyrically, “I’m Sprung” imagined a guy who didn’t mind doing dishes, neglecting his friends and ignoring other women for a newfound crush. It managed to be sappy, masculine and insanely catchy at the same time, and the song hit the Top Ten in three Billboard charts, including No. 3 on Rhythmic Top 40. Written and performed by T-Pain, the song blended a thunderous 808 beat, old soul music and the vocal manipulations of the vocoder into something unique. “I just got tired of turning on the radio and everything just sounding the same,” he has said.
He wasn’t done. The second single off his appropriately titled debut album, Rappa Ternt Sanga, was “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper).” Again capitalizing off the mutant-techno strains of the vocoder, the song celebrated the intense (if fleeting) infatuation men experience when going to a gentlemen’s club. Merging the same elements that made “I’m Sprung” a smash, the tune hit the Top Ten in five Billboard charts. Perhaps more lucrative, though, was its street appeal; the song became an obvious favorite in hangouts staffed by exotic dancers and the men who love them. He’d earned a loyal following. He told MTV.com, “There’s finally a song about strippers that ain’t degrading. It’s a song that’s appreciating strippers.”
Although his first big radio hits seemed to unapologetically embrace the frivolous, the 23-year-old T-Pain is actually a married, family man with an eye towards self-preservation. That’s probably why his newest effort, “Epiphany,” reflects maturation in both in a work ethic and the themes he chooses to embrace. The first single from his sophomore effort, “Buy U A Drank,” is largely self-explanatory, but then it isn’t — T-Pain isn’t crude or overtly sexual but simply flirtatious and seductive, much like his music, so seductive that “Buy U A Drank” beat out tunes by Avril Lavigne, Beyonce and even his pal Akon to become being the No. 1 ringtone on Billboard’s RingMaster’s chart for two consecutive weeks in April. But T-Pain gets serious too, with tunes including “Suicide,” about the potential pitfalls that today’s youth face.
“Having sex without condoms, driving drunk, selling drugs, all that is ‘Suicide’,” he says. “We do a lot of stupid stuff that only has one ending.”
Having relocated with his wife and daughter to Atlanta and recently spending time in London, T-Pain’s mind seems open to more possibilities. The two studios he has built in his basement are open too: He’s gearing up to work with major artists including R. Kelly, Kanye West, Usher, Chris Brown and Britney Spears. Though he’s nicknamed himself after Teddy Pendergrass, he is, in fact, an artist who is cultivating a lasting legacy of his own.