10 Years, 100 Songs: #92. “Talk to Me, I Talk Back”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 17, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
When Snoop Dogg’s “Sensual Seduction” came out towards the end of 2006, I thought it was absolutely the bee’s knees. Brilliantly produced, flawlessly played by Mr. Broadus, and one of the most pitch-perfect videos of the decade, no doubt. But as much as I loved it, I would sure it would be remembered by history as a novelty, a somewhat parodic comment on a ridiculous and short-lived mini-trend in pop music, and that ten years we would look back on it and say “what the fuck was that about?” Flash forward to about a year and a half later, though, and just about everything on the radio sounded like “Sensual Seduction.” Well, not exactly–the synth-and-flute combo hook never quite caught on, unfortunately–but the most immediately recognizable and most obviously gimmicky part of the song, the autotuned vocals, was positively omnipotent. Snoop wasn’t satirizing a trend, he was just jumping on the bandwagon a couple months before it really got going. And the man responsible for all of this? One Faheem Rasheed Najm, better known as T-Pain.
T-Pain never made any sense as a pop culture lynchpin. Like the other weirdest (and most dominant) force in pop music towards the end of the decade, Lil’ Wayne, T-Pain seemed vaguely alien-ish, but not in an irrepressibly charismatic way. If Weezy was the T-1000 of the 00s, a shape-shifting, unstoppably prolific and unapologetic figure, then T-Pain would be the Predator, lurking in the shadows, occasionally downright invisble, but capable of no less an amount of destruction (and looking kinda the same with those dreads, top hat and big-ass sunglasses). His first hit, “I’m Sprung,” was terrible, and his second, “I’m in Luv (Wit a Strippa)” wasn’t much better (although it was much funnier, at least), but along the way, partially thanks to guest appearances on hits like E-40’s “U and Dat” and R. Kelly’s “I’m a Flirt,” Pain’s distinctly robotic warble started to worm its way into the subconscious of the nation–so much so that by the time of second album Epiphany, T-Pain was ready for a legitimate breakout.
“Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’),” T-Pain’s first #1 hit as a solo artist, is about as definitive as it gets for the dreadlocked wonder. Like the man itself, the song is largely inexplicable. It rides the snap trend that was prevalent in hip-hop at the time, even referencing it in the lyrics and title, but sounds nothing remotely like anything Dem Franchize Boyz or D4L ever did. It’s arguable as a standard R&B love ballad, but the main chorus is neither really romantic, seductive or anything but vaguely non-sequitorial (“I’ma buy you a drank / I got money in the bank”)–and then once you get to the “think about it / awwwwwwWWWWW SNAP!” section, all pretenses at love-making (physical or lyrical) have more or less been dropped. And with the minimal beat and beds of synth hooks that adorn the song, it sounds a little too sobering to be really effective as a pick-up soundtrack, seeming more appropriate for the morning after than anything.
Not to say that I’m complaining about any of this, however. If anything, it shows how insiduous the T-Pain sound was in general that he was able to get such an enigmatic, cool-sounding mishmash of production themes and lyrical tics to the top of the charts. What other hit this decade has backing harmonies anywhere near as stunning as these, especially during the “We in the bed like / ….” section? What other hit has so many clashing, freelancing synth lines, which always come together at just the right points of the song? What other hit slips in references to 50 Cent, UNK, Lil’ Jon and TI without ever breaking the feel of the lyrics? What other hit has a chorus so fun to sing along to while you forcefully vibrate your throat to attempt to mimic the sound? It all adds up to something of a mess, but shambolic glory is glory nonetheless, and it’s all tied together by that damned autotune, which–ironically for a device invented for the purpose of making vocalists more standardized–turned T-Pain one of the most compelling, and distinctly original, crooners of the decade.
Of course, it’d be unfair of me to give all the credit for “Buy U a Drank” to T-Pain. As he gave out for so many other hip-hop artists himself, T-Pain got a huge assist on this song from oughties relic-to-be Yung Joc. Already responsible for perhaps the most hypnotically montonous hip-hop song of the decade, “It’s Goin’ Down” (which made “Wait (The Whisper Song)” sound like “Flight of the Bumblebee”), Joc was kind enough to lend his unexcited drawl to the guest verse in “Drank.” He acts as kind of a stablizing force for the song, coming in after two verses and choruses of Pain’s vocal histrionics and bizarre exultations to settle things down for a verse (and naturally, lyrically reference his own hit just in case you had already forgotten who he was), before kindly throwing the song back to T-Pain for the climactic bridge section. His 12 bars aren’t anything revelatory (though I always thought “I’m checkin’ your body language, I love the conversation / and when you lick your lips I get a tinglin’ sensation” was a surprisingly descriptive couplet), but it serves its purpose quite well, and it means that Joc gets to tell his diseblieving grandkids that he was on two top five hits–crazy decade, huh?
Of course, once T-Pain had officially broken through, the floodgates opened, and the numbers he’s put up since are staggering enough to make you wonder if he’s juicing somehow. In the last three years of this decade alone–two and a half, really, since this one still has aways to go–he’s released or appeared on 21 different top 40 hits, 11 of which have gone top ten and three of which went all the way to pole position. And beyond that, just about everyone he’s come into contact with has gone on to spread the autotune gospel elsewhere, meaning that even on the minority of pop songs that didn’t actually feature his voice, you were still fairly likely to hear someone that suddenly sounded a whole lot like him, whether it be Chris Brown, Kanye West, Akon, or even Lil’ Wayne himself. When Jay-Z, the self-annointed arbiter of hip-hop, has to actually release a single that tries to pronounce a movement dead, you know it’s reached a near-dangeorus level of musical permeation.
Still, a decade removed from “Believe” and “Only God Knows Why,” maybe the autotune takeover was all just an inevitability. Frankly, I’m glad that at least it was in the hands of a guy who didn’t take himself too seriously, knew a good hook when he heard it, and occasionally created some weirdly beautiful and hilarious hits that the country was powerless to ignore. If the new decade does indeed bring the death of autotune, it was still time well spent in this one.