Album Review: “Oblivion” by T-Pain
By Brandon King
Unpopular opinion: I think T-Pain is underrated. The Tallahassee-based singer/rapper came out of nowhere in the early 2000’s with his brand of melodic R&B that was drenched in a newfangled voice effect at the time, auto-tune. Of course, since T-Pain and a few others popularized the effect, auto-tune has become nearly inescapable in modern music. Some don’t mind it, and others want it buried six feet under and left alone. Yet T-Pain was one of those artists who could make the effect work by utilizing some killer vocal layering, mostly interesting instrumentation, and a sense of charisma that other artists never really caught on to with auto-tune. While none of his albums have blown me away or anything like that, I think 2007’s Epiphany and 2008’s Thr33 Ringz are solid projects that I enjoy coming back to once and awhile (and his mountains of guest spots aren’t too shabby either). His last record, 2011’s rEVOLVEr, had its moments for sure, but it felt like T-Pain was throwing a bunch of things against the wall with not everything sticking (and most other critics weren’t too kind to that record either). But some of T-Pain’s recent projects – his stripped-down NPR Tiny Desk concert from 2014, 2015’s The Iron Way Mixtape, and even the FINALLY released T-Wayne Mixtape with Lil’ Wayne from earlier this year – had me curious to see what kind of record he would follow up rEVOLVEr with. Maybe there was room for the “rappa turnt sanga” in today’s music landscape?
So what did we end up getting with Oblivion? Well, I’ll say this: overall, the feel and style of T-Pain is still here and, as a fan of that style, I appreciated a lot of this record. But, at the same time, it doesn’t necessarily feel like a maturation of T-Pain’s style and merging that style with more “modern” sensibilities are here to mixed results.
That consensus is disappointing to say because, like I said, there’s some really good stuff on this record. One of the things T-Pain has always been great at is infusing otherwise basic beats with interesting production and layering auto-tuned vocals together. There are some absolutely fantastic tracks on this record that not only maintain those sensibilities but also don’t feel dated, which was a fear I admittedly had. Easily the best track here is “May I”, featuring Mr. Talkbox, a nearly 8-minute song featuring everything from lo-fi keyboards to lounge style piano to a drum breakdown (seriously, when was the last time you heard a drum breakdown in a hip-hop song?). This was the first song I heard from this record and the ambition and diversity I heard on it set my expectations quite high. Other standouts include the album opener, “Who Died”, the incredibly catchy “That Comeback”, featuring Ne-Yo (who I’d like to hear collaborate with T-Pain more frequently); the string-infused “CeCe from DC”, featuring Wale, who sounds completely at home on this song; and the album closer “Second Chance (Don’t Back Down)”, featuring Roberto Cacciapaglia. These tracks are full of instrumentation and charisma. I was having a lot of fun with these songs and they are worth checking out.
So what exactly is the problem? A good chunk of this album is T-Pain trying his style on trap-style production, and it just doesn’t flatter him. “Straight” is basically just T-Pain on a really bad Migos beat. “No Rush”, sounds like his production style, but buried under the same keyboard and snap sounds you’ve heard anywhere on pop radio (which I didn’t need more of in my life). “Goal Line” featuring Blac Younsta is easily the least interesting song on the album – a synth that I’m convinced is just a distorted radar noise, the most standard trap drum machine I’ve heard in a while, and Blac Youngsta’s lackluster verse and annoying interjections add up to a song that just frankly was no fun to listen to.
To be fair, those songs are mostly in the first half of the record (the second half feels much more full and interesting, I’ll give it that). But here’s the thing: the album is 16 tracks at a little over an hour long. The aforementioned standouts, “Who Died” and “May I”, have 6 tracks between them. Say what you will about a project like T-Wayne, but that record didn’t feel nearly as messily paced as Oblivion does. Sure, it was scattershot, but the tracks all flowed quickly enough to keep interest. Here, an 8-minute song like “May I” actually feels like it goes by faster than a 3-minute song like “Goal Line.” The good stuff feels like it takes way too long to get here, and I feel bad even considering saying skip the first half of the album, but that’s the kind of record this is.
Overall, I like Oblivion. The majority of this record contains a great selection of well-produced and interesting tracks, with some I would consider some of the best T-Pain’s ever released. That being said, I would be a lot more interested had the album utilized more of the elements of those standout songs. The ratio of standouts to disappointments is quite jarring – it made me appreciate the good stuff even more, but repeat listens just had me rolling my eyes at the lackluster songs. Make no mistake, if you’re a fan of T-Pain, give it a listen because you really might enjoy it. While I’ve definitely heard better, it was a really good feeling to hear another T-Pain record in today’s music landscape, and the growth that he’s showing here at least interests me, which is more than I can say for some of his imitators.
I give T-Pain’s Oblivion a 6/10.