*Ed’s note* This album was intended to receive a 3, an error caused it to be given a 2 when it first went up. Our apologies.

Much like Das Efx‘s use of “iggity” after every bar, or Missy Elliott and Timbaland‘s decision to push their tracks past the 100 BPM mark, there are some trends which inevitably affect Hip Hop without being a part of the culture’s DNA. When we look back on the current era, T-Pain‘s [click to read] synthesized, Auto-Tune sound may be one of those trends. His third effort, the eponymous Thr33 Ringz, caps off a year that has seen “Teddy Bend Her Ass” nail down 11 number one hits, either by himself or as a collaborator. All of which begs the question, just because something is popular, does that mean it’s any good?

To be fair, Thr33 Rings is a Dance/Pop album at heart. There are the expected appearances from Hip Hop artists such as Kanye West, T.I. [click to read], Lil Wayne [click to read] and Ludacris [click to read]. The guest spots work best when the collaborators don’t fully compromise by trying to imitate T-Pain. This is best evidenced by Lil Wayne‘s turn on “Can’t Believe It,” where Weezy takes his successful “Lollipop” experiment from this summer to new lows by going full-on Auto-Tune and mailing in a sung verse. Conversely, tracks such as the Kanye West assisted “Therapy,” and “It Ain’t Me,” which features T.I., find the more capable emcees playing their position alongside T-Pain. On “Chopped And Skrewed,” Ludacris takes advantage of a double-time flow, repetition and some simple vocal tricks to make one of the album’s more memorable Hip Hop cameos.

Even if you’re a certified T-Pain hater, cuts such as “Reality Show” and “Blowing Up” show Pain living up to his self-proclaimed title of “ringleader.” Taking a break from the monotonous synth-heavy beats, T-Pain plays the background and allows more skilled crooners such as Musiq, Raheem DeVaughn and Ciara to hit the booth, sans Auto-Tune. In addition to being quality dance tracks, they showcase T-Pain‘s potential as both a producer and assembler of talent.

Of course, Thr33 Rings has its flaws. And when T-Pain misses the results are as horrific as a tight-rope walker unsuccessfully working without a net. While “Keep Going” proves T-Pain is capable vocalist without using Auto-Tune, it’s out of place on an album that is largely comprised of shit talk, strip club anthems and dance numbers. Things only get worse on “Change.” Hearing Akon [click to read], T-Pain and Mary J. Blige reinterpret Eric Clapton‘s “Change The World” may be the worst example of a “We Are The World” moment gone wrong ever. Akon singing, “Race crimes and hate crimes would never exist/I’d turn every bullet to a Hershey’s Kiss,” may be the corniest Hip Hop moment which doesn’t involve Vanilla Ice.

On “Karaoke,” Pain tries to remind people of his early Tallahassee days–when his lewd raps drew more attention than anything he’d ever sung. In the history of Hip Hop there have been worse bars spit. But with DJ Khaled [click to read] annoyingly hollering on the hook, and seemingly making it his personal mission to say the word “nigga” at every occasion, it becomes another throwaway track.

Hip Hop head or not, T-Pain‘s omnipresence guarantees you will encounter Thr33 Rings at the club, the party and on numerous cell phones, via the ringtone market, well into the early part of 2009. The album succeeds when Pain presents his material as a Dance/Pop album which makes use of high-powered cameos from the best-selling Hip Hop and R&B artists. With so many both copying and condemning his style, it’s understandable that he would attempt to address the subject and even prove he’s more diverse than we give him credit for. These efforts are hit and miss–and the misses are the type of fodder the skip forward button on your CD or MP3 player was made for. But the same tension also works to his benefit at times. So while some will continue to wonder if T-Pain‘s Auto-Tune antics make him the new millennium Stephin Fetchit, he proves that in this circus he is ringleader by trade and clown by choice–for better or worse.