Despite his robotic voice, T-Pain is more human than most of his chiseled, bland, and utterly interchangeable peers in modern r&b. The former rapper from Florida has a mess of black/blond dreads, omnipresent shades, a taste for top hats and gobs of jewelry, and an uncanny knack for making proletariat anthems devoted to the easy escapism of drunkenness, sex, and strip clubs. The ability to repeatedly conjure up such brainless merriment has made him the undeniable king of urban pop radio. Through its title, the intro, and several skits, T-Pain’s third album, Thr33 Ringz, is vaguely built around a circus motif, and its star attraction is a showman who abides by one golden rule: Give the audience what they came to see.
Unconcerned with abstraction or pretentious conceit, T-Pain is a casual literalist who understands that songs intended for moistening dance floors or sending ripples through stripper flesh need not be exercises in art-fuckery. Instead of the generic come-hithers or agonized platitudes of his contemporaries, he jokes about being broke or getting drunk or booting girls out of his house. On the up-tempo, shimmering “Therapy,” a winning track that bends between sweet-hearted and insulting, T-Pain integrates the punchy if un-poetic phrase “I don’t need your sex/I’ll masturbate” into an unlikely hook. His clever friend Kanye West shows up and flaunts his underappreciated ability to flip pop-culture references into effective punch lines: “Show me your Janet Jacksons if you’re nasty/Said you wanted to cut my nuts off like Jesse Jackson—classy.” Wait, why is he singing a whole album with AutoTune again?
West doesn’t use the vocal-enhancing program here, but T-Pain does gripe about his trademark sound being co-opted by everyone from Snoop to R. Kelly to Ron Browz. Over the choral chants and rattling snares of “Karaoke,” he extends sole permission to Kanye and Lil Wayne while presenting himself as the descendant of fellow metal-lunged iconoclasts like Teddy Riley and Roger Troutman. “You just a swagger jacker/Now I’m a certified Lamborghini-ist and Cadillac-er,” he notes. Still, T-Pain is no isolationist. The guest list for Thr33 Ringz reads like the roster of one of those VIP sections he yammers about so incessantly: Wayne, T.I., Ludacris, Mary J. Blige, Diddy, Akon, Chris Brown, etc. A smorgasbord of keyboards, thumping basslines, and blithe odes to various ladies, Thr33 Ringz is both unrepentant and wildly successful in its towering predictability. As the ringmaster, T-Pain doesn’t attempt high-wire aerial stunts, risk swallowing any swords, or stick his head in a yawning lion’s mouth. But he steers a pretty good clown car.