A few years ago, T-Pain, the godfather of autotune, found himself in a deep depression. One of the best R&B vocalists in history, Usher – and someone he considered a friend – told him quite seriously: “You kind of fucked up music.” Arguably the bedrock of the rapper, producer, and singer-songwriter’s hugely successful career had reduced him in stature in the eyes of his contemporaries. The next several years he struggled with depression and anxiety.
Four years removed from his last studio effort, the 16-bit-infused 1UP, the lasting impacts of that conversation are felt heavily on On Top of the Covers. On an unvarnished and full-throated collection of cover songs, T-Pain flexes his vocal prowess completely without autotune. And the results speak for themselves.
From a spell-binding version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” to a raw and vocally uninhibited take of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” T-Pain shows what any real fan already knew to be true: his use of autotune was merely an instrument all along – a streak of flair that enhanced T-Pain’s natural singing voice. As countless autotune users that have come after him have learned, it’s the singer that makes the autotune, not the other way around.
It seems insulting that someone with this repertoire would have to further justify his contribution to the craft. But, amazingly, that is what T-Pain does on On Top of the Covers. Each and every choice is so clearly personal and handled with a remarkable combination of reverence and reinvention. The listener doesn’t need to know every backstory of his selections to realize each and every one is a deeply personal and deliberate choice.
A covers album with this eclectic collection of material could’ve quickly gone wrong. But Cooke’s classic melts seamlessly into a euphoric belting of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” And he levels up Sam Smith’s already incandescent “Stay With Me.” It’s not often a cover stands up to the original, and even rarer for one to surpass it. This one does both.
T-Pain crosses genres here so seamlessly – from soul to arena rock to classical to country to jazz. The transition from an aggrieved, country-fueled rendition of Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey” to Frank Sinatra standard “That’s Life” is really the thrust of the album in a nutshell. Almost each and every wild turn works, and the only common denominator is T-Pain.
Not everything gels perfectly, however. Probably the one misstep is “Sharing the Night Together,” originally by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. The song reeks of adult contemporary, and even T-Pain’s personality and knack for arrangements can’t save it. It’s the only skip on an otherwise blemish-free record.
On Top of the Covers comes more than three years after T-Pain initially conceived of the idea, which was shortly after he won The Masked Singer sans autotune. And he credits his shift to an independent artist as the reason it’s finally seeing the light of day. It says something about the state of the industry that a collection of gems like this took so long to get released.
It’s a bit ironic that T-Pain has been so penalized in music circles and popular culture for simply having cracked the code with regard to 2000s pop hits. It’s not T-Pain’s fault his music was ubiquitous and a lot of artists – the good, bad, and the ugly – took it upon themselves to copy his style. But it was just that: a style. It wasn’t the essence of what makes T-Pain special. There’s way more to his appeal than that. And On Top of the Covers is tangible proof.