R. Kelly ft. T-Pain “I’m a Flirt” (#25 single)
Kanye West ft. T-Pain “Good Life” ( #29 single)
T-Pain “Buy U a Drank” (#59 single)
Timbaland ft. Keri Hilson “The Way I Are” (#30 single)
Rihanna “Umbrella” (#2 single)
2007’s r&b brought precious little ruckus. Tracks like “Umbrella” and “Beautiful Girls” and “Buy U a Drank” acted as precision-engineered pleasure machines, delivering breezy melody without getting mired in messy, overwrought emotion. T-Pain’s default mode is a sort of modulated squeak, a weightless but excitable upper-register bleat mangled into a mechanistic whistle by Autotune effects. As a producer, he favors airy, clean backdrops, weaving that squeak into luxuriant pillows of android coos. On “Buy U a Drank,” his first-ever chart-topper, he histrionically reels off simplistic pickup lines and dance instructions, emoting relentlessly and sounding weirdly vulnerable and empty, like he badly needs to tell us something but isn’t sure what it is. As a freelance hooksmith on other people’s chart-toppers, he uses that voice like a clarion, wailing out instantly memorable odes to money and butts. And on his almost-rapped guest-verse remixes to kiddie-rap club jams like DJ Unk’s “2 Step” and Huey’s “Pop Lock & Drop It,” he contorts it into complicated melodic twists and dives, phrasings that mean more than whatever words he’s singing.
It’s an awfully dextrous trick, that automated yelp, and it’s somehow turned T-Pain into the unlikely face of r&b. His orange-tipped dreads and goofy dances became ubiquitous on BET, as a shockingly endless string of club-pop hits made use of his 16-bit howl. One week in November, that voice showed up four times in Billboard‘s Top 10, animating tracks from Chris Brown, Kanye West, Flo Rida, and Baby Bash. Before the year was out, veterans like R. Kelly and Snoop Dogg were shamelessly stealing his gimmick, while hitmaking songwriter Terius “The-Dream” Nash was making a career out of remarkably similar vocal affectations.
All of which is to say that 2007 was the year the robots took over. Akon, T-Pain’s Konvict Music label boss, doesn’t lean as hard on filter effects as his protégé does, but his voice also works as a nasal glide, one unencumbered by gospel-tinged vocal runs or loverman muscle-sweat. Akon’s pitched-up whine sounds as effortless as a laptop’s operational whir, and though he spent most of 2007 playing damage control for nefarious onstage activities, he still found time to celebrate his dominance on the triumphant hook to DJ Khaled’s overblown (and, at #105 here, underrated) posse cut “We Takin’ Over.” Lesser lights like Sean Kingston and Lloyd scored hits outright aping it, sometimes with surprisingly affecting results. Eventually, T-Pain actually went on record complaining about other singers stealing his Autotune gimmick, like he invented the damn thing.
Kanye West, meanwhile, discovered French house music, jacking fake-robot duo Daft Punk’s vocoder murmurs for his new album’s biggest hit, “Stronger.” Timbaland extended the lifespan of a middling solo album with “The Way I Are,” a luminous lockstep dance song that nodded toward the gleaming textures of Euroclub cheese, right down to the strobing synths and an almost charmingly clumsy rap verse worthy of Snap! Keri Hilson’s vocal on the track didn’t fight against the beat’s tide—instead, it became another element of the track, working in perfect tandem with all the other moving parts. And this style’s most successful example, Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” took advantage of the stark contrast between the intimate longing of its lyrics and the icy self-assurance of its vocal.
A guy like T-Pain clearly wants to be a capital-A Artist: It’s the only reasonable explanation for the album skit on 2007’s Epiphany where he learns he’s contracted HIV. But the pop blueprint he spent all year crafting—more on other people’s songs than his own—was utterly assembly-line, and his best hooks worked just the same in ringtone form as they did coming out of expensive sound systems. This robot-pop shares little with the ’80s electro and freestyle to which it sometimes nods: There’s no empty space, no dynamic range. Instead, the dance-pop of T-Pain and his ilk is relentlessly compressed and instantly recognizable. Hooks take hold immediately and fade just as quickly.
In plenty of ways only slightly less obvious than Kanye’s recent Gallic fixation, black American pop has moved more and more toward European club music. The shift started a few years ago with female vocalists, as glassy cyborgs like Ciara came to supplant belters. But lately, that effect has bled over not only into male singers but into production techniques: T-Pain’s track for Flo-Rida’s “Low,” for instance, boasts so many faux-epic synth-trills and jittery bass-farts that it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Ministry of Sound trance compilation in 1999. There are plenty of economic reasons for this: the importance of European markets in a shrinking music industry, the sudden ringtone-based importance of insta-hooks. And it’s tough to call robot-pop a sad development after hearing T-Pain’s gloriously exultant bridge on Kanye’s “The Good Life.” But we’re also seeing rasps and sighs and screeches and sobs disappear from commercial r&b’s vocabulary, with only a few vocalists (Mary J. Blige, Anthony Hamilton, Keyshia Cole) using ideas outside the T-Pain playbook. When Mariah Carey released The Emancipation of Mimi in 2005, she pulled off a roaring comeback, adjusting to a changing climate by holding back on her natural inclination toward melismatic runs. If current trends hold, by the time she releases her 2008 album, she’ll sound like Vickie from Small Wonder. Maybe she can make that work, and maybe she can’t.
In any case, my favorite r&b moment of 2007 came unexpectedly on 8 Diagrams, the Wu-Tang Clan reunion album that nobody bought. On the six-minute ghetto-life lament “Stick Me for My Riches,” producers RZA and Mathematics brought in a ringer: Gerald Alston, the 65-year-old former frontman for ’70s soul veterans the Manhattans. There’s nothing effortless about Alston’s screech-wail delivery—he sounds like he extracted his guest-verse directly from his own bone marrow, without anesthesia. For a minute and a half, before any rappers come in, Alston builds from a matter-of-fact singsong to a stormy melodramatic cry, letting his voice crack and wobble as he builds up to his climax. By the time the track fades out, Alston sounds like he’s drained and destroyed, as if it took him every last drop of life-force to finish the song. At the end of the year, “Stick Me for My Riches” was a sharp reminder: For some singers, everything is always at stake. It’s worth remembering.