In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“Man, you kind of… kind of fucked up music.” That’s how T-Pain remembers the conversation. On a great 2021 episode of the Netflix show This Is Pop, T-Pain tells the story of how Usher, an artist who’s been in this column multiple times, summoned him to the back of a plane. This was 2013, and Usher and T-Pain were on the way to the BET Awards. T-Pain was asleep, but Usher had something that he wanted to get off his chest. A flight attendant woke T-Pain up and sent him to go meet with Usher, and Usher informed T-Pain that he had ruined music:
I didn’t understand. Usher was my friend. He was like, “Nah, man, you really fucked up music for real singers.” Literally at that point, I couldn’t listen. Is he right? Did I fuck this up? Did I fuck up music? That is the very moment — I don’t think I even realized this for a long time — that’s the very moment that started a four-year depression for me.
T-Pain is a real singer. In recent years, he’s taken every opportunity to show the world that he can actually sing, with or without the narcotizing Auto-Tune robot effect that made him famous. T-Pain didn’t invent Auto-Tune, and he didn’t popularize it. Years before T-Pain, singers were using the program’s pitch-correcting capabilities to create the illusion that they always sang in tune, and its flattening effect felt almost subliminal. But T-Pain was the first singer who built Auto-Tune into his personal style, his brand. Many, many more would follow. That’s what bothered Usher. It’s what bothered so many people. (For the record, Usher now says that he and T-Pain have spoken and that they’re cool.)
T-Pain used Auto-Tune at its most extreme version, the fabled zero setting — stripping away any sense of illusion and flaunting the program’s artificiality. Other singers had done that, too; the zero setting is what made Cher sound so fascinatingly robotic on “Believe.” For Cher, though, the Auto-Tune effect was a brief novelty. For T-Pain, it was a whole way of life. Auto-Tune wasn’t a streamlining agent for T-Pain. It was distortion. T-Pain used the tools available to him, and he bent his voice up into unnatural shapes and pitches. He made himself sound strange and futuristic, and he changed the entire course of pop-music history in the process.
At the time, I was skeptical. I did not like “Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin’),” T-Pain’s first #1 hit, when it came out. T-Pain’s whole style become so ubiquitous so quickly that it was disorienting. T-Pain showed up on tons of other people’s hits, and we’ll see him in that freelance role a few times in this column. At the beginning of 2008, when T-Pain was fully inescapable, I wrote a whole Village Voice Pazz & Jop year-end piece about T-Pain and about the sleek, robotic new age of R&B singers — and also about the raw, sweaty voices that those singers were already replacing.
But T-Pain’s real magic trick wasn’t the cyborg voice filter. It was the way he communicated his own irrepressible humanity through all that futuristic technology. That would ultimately become T-Pain’s true legacy — entire generations of vocalists who used T-Pain’s Auto-Tune style to display their own messy emotions.
A decade and a half after his imperial era, T-Pain isn’t really making hits anymore, but his influence still looms. At this point, it’s weird to hear new rappers and singers who don’t warp their voices with Auto-Tune. In my book The Number Ones, I dedicate a chapter to T-Pain and “Buy U A Drank” because of the way T-Pain reshaped the very sound of human expression. T-Pain didn’t fuck up music. He just brought it into a strange new era.
Faheem Najm comes from a family of Bahamian Muslims in Tallahassee; his stage name is short for Tallahassee Pain. (Prince And The Revolution’s “Let’s Go Crazy” was the #1 song in America when T-Pain was born.) As a kid, T-Pain was in love with music. At 10 years old, he used a keyboard and a drum machine to turn his bedroom into a mini-studio. T-Pain dropped out of school in eighth grade; music was all that he wanted to do. As a teenager, T-Pain joined Nappy Headz, a Tallahassee rap group who made a few local hits.
While T-Pain was in Nappy Headz, he kept working in his home studio, using a computer and equipment that a friend boosted from a CompUSA store with a fake gift card. T-Pain first heard the Auto-Tune zero effect on a remix of Jennifer Lopez’s “If You Had My Love,” and he drove himself crazy trying to figure out how to recreate that sound. He experimented with different filters and programs before discovering the effect that would make him sound like a lovelorn robot.
T-Pain is a true convert to the Auto-Tune sound. This wasn’t a way to disguise his voice or to make himself sound like he could sing better than he could. Instead, the sound was an end unto itself. In Ben Westhoff’s book Dirty South, T-Pain tries to explain that sound’s lure: “The shit is so soothing, it just makes you feel better.” When he discovered what Auto-Tune could do to his voice, T-Pain cried.
In 2004, T-Pain got Akon’s attention. That’s when T-Pain flipped Akon’s breakout hit “Locked Up.” (“Locked Up” peaked at #8. It’s a 7.) T-Pain’s mixtape track “I’m Fucked Up” is basically a parody of “Locked Up”; it’s about being broke and horny rather than imprisoned. T-Pain didn’t use a ton of Auto-Tune on “I’m Fucked Up,” but his nasal chirp isn’t too different from Akon’s regular singing voice. Akon was impressed. But Akon might’ve been even more impressed with “I’m Sprung,” a love song that layered T-Pain’s voice into cascades of Auto-Tune. T-Pain produced “I’m Sprung” himself, and he wrote it about his wife Amber, who he married in 2003. They’re still together today.
“I’m Sprung” was already gaining steam regionally when Akon signed T-Pain as the first artist on his Konvikt Musik imprint. “I’m Sprung” got a national release in 2005, when T-Pain was 21, and the song sounded nothing like anything I’d ever heard. In past generations, plenty of funk and R&B futurists had distorted their voices with gadgets like vocoders and talkboxes, but those sounds were huge and physical. Auto-Tune allowed T-Pain’s voice to glide on the track. Thanks in part to that effect, “I’m Sprung” caught people’s attention, and the song reached #8. (It’s an 8.)
“I’m Sprung” could’ve been a novelty hit, but T-Pain didn’t fade away. He followed that single by teaming with Houston rapper Mike Jones on the much sillier “I’m ‘N Luv (Wit A Stripper),” which he did not write about his wife. I don’t like that song nearly as much, but it was even bigger, peaking at #5. (It’s a 4.) T-Pain’s 2006 debut album Rappa Ternt Sanga went gold, and he kicked off an extremely prolific run of singing hooks on rappers’ tracks. Within a year, T-Pain had appeared on hits from artists like E-40, Bow Wow, and DJ Khaled.
T-Pain didn’t waste any time recording his sophomore album Epiphany. In 2015, T-Pain told USA Today that the single “Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” was the first time that he intentionally went in to write a mainstream hit: “What do people like talking about? They like drinking, and they like drinking with girls. What do you say to a girl to get her a drink?” “Buy U A Drank” really isn’t any deeper than that. It’s T-Pain kicking one pickup line after another — “I know the club close at three/ What’s the chances of you rollin’ with me?” — while shouting out the different songs and dances that were big in clubs at the time.
T-Pain produced “Buy U A Drank” himself, and the track works as his version of snap music, which was still running Southern clubs in the era after D4L and Dem Franchize Boyz scored their hits. In his lyrics, T-Pain quotes from tons of club anthems: Unk’s “Walk It Out,” Lil Boosie’s “Zoom,” 50 Cent’s “Just A Lil Bit.” A couple of his allusions are so direct that T-Pain had to share songwriting credits. The “you can do it all by yo’self” bit comes from “Snap Yo Fingers,” Lil Jon’s 2006 track with Bay Area legend E-40 and YoungBloodz member Sean P. Thanks to that line, Lil Jon and E-40 are both credited songwriters on “Buy U A Drank.” (“Snap Yo Fingers” peaked at #7. It’s a 6. As lead artist, E-40’s highest-charting single is 2006’s “U And Dat,” which rode a T-Pain hook to #13.)
The other song that T-Pain heavily quotes on “Buy U A Drank” is another Lil Jon production. When T-Pain sings that he’s got money in the bank, he’s quoting from Lil Jon protege Lil Scrappy’s 2006 Young Buck collab “Money In The Bank,” which peaked at #28 and which remains Lil Scrappy’s highest-charting single. Lil Scrappy got a songwriting credit on “Buy U A Drank,” too. I hope it gave him more money in the bank. (Lil Scrappy’s 2004 single “No Problem,” which peaked at #29, was the first thing I ever reviewed for Pitchfork, but I’d love that song even if it didn’t play a weirdly significant role in my career.)
T-Pain would’ve probably also had to give songwriting credit to the Atlanta rapper Yung Joc even if he didn’t have a Yung Joc guest-verse on the track. Yung Joc, whose father owned a company that sold hair-care products, wrote a Revlon jingle when he was a teenager. (When Joc was born, Diana Ross’ “Upside Down” was the #1 song in America.) In 2005, Joc and Atlanta producer Nitti recorded the single “It’s Goin’ Down,” and that song scored Joc a deal with Diddy’s newly launched Bad Boy South imprint.
“It’s Goin’ Down” was huge. It had Nitti’s weirdly insistent, slightly maddening beat, and it also had Yung Joc’s nonchalant T.I.-esque flow, but the song’s real hook was the revving-a-motorcycle dance that Joc did in the video. One of my favorite YouTube videos of all time is Tom Cruise, visiting 106 & Park while promoting Mission: Impossible III, bashfully and hopelessly attempting the motorcycle dance. Look at this goof! I love it! (“It’s Goin’ Down” peaked at #3. It’s an 8.)
Yung Joc always had one-hit wonder written all over him. I saw Joc open for T.I. at the Apollo in 2006, and he must’ve done “It’s Goin’ Down’ three times. It was really goin’ down that night. T-Pain quotes “It’s Goin’ Down” all over “Buy U A Drank,” and then Joc comes in for a verse that pretty much just uses the “It’s Goin’ Down” flow.
In a VladTV interview last year, Joc told a story about how he ended up on “Buy U A Drank.” To hear Joc tell it, T-Pain had been really excited to meet the Houston rap star Lil Flip at an industry event in Dallas. Joc tried to introduce the two, but Flip blew T-Pain off and didn’t shake his hand. (Lil Flip’s highest-charting single, the 2004 Lea collab “Sunshine,” peaked at #2. It’s a 3.) T-Pain was bummed, and Joc says that he took T-Pain out and got him drunk to take his mind off of it. A few months later, Joc got the call to rap on “Buy U A Drank.” T-Pain disputes this account — when it went viral, he commented on an Instagram post with a cap emoji — but I choose to believe this story because it’s funny and endearing.
In that USA Today interview, T-Pain says that he didn’t really like “Buy U A Drank” at first. He’d written the song just to get a hit, and that wasn’t fulfilling. But once T-Pain layered enough of his own harmonies, he started liking the track. I like it, too. In his production, T-Pain keeps the sonic sparseness of snap music, but he adds these dizzy, dissolving keyboard sounds that make it sound woozy and dreamlike. His voice does the same thing — all those mechanized coos stacked up on top of each other.
The “Buy U A Drank” lyrics are pure silliness: “Crunk Juice bombs! Oakley shades! Shawty got class! Oh, behave!” T-Pain sings about taking a lady to bed, and then he lets out a bunch of rhythmic moan-squeaks — a demonstration of the sounds that might come from that bedroom. (Is T-Pain the one making those sounds, or is it the girl? He never says.) At the time, those squeaks were a major hurdle for me. Now, the whole track, with its time-capsule dances and its wobbly melodies, bursts with nostalgia.
Amidst those squeaks, there’s all sorts of emotion in T-Pain’s voice. He sounds excited, but there’s also a weird melancholy in there. Here’s how I described it at the time: “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.” All that Auto-Tune has a slightly displacing effect. It makes T-Pain sound less human and more human at the same time.
“Buy U A Drank” has an effortless melodic float, and it gets a lot of mileage from its sonic contrasts — T-Pain’s digitized yip and Yung Joc’s lazy drawl, the airy keyboard blips and the deep sub-bass tones. In director Benny Boom’s video, girls make eyes at the camera, and various rap luminaries — E-40, Gorilla Zoe, Huey — make of-the-moment cameos. Most of the fun is T-Pain and his friends trying out goofy, elaborate dances, emphasizing the enthusiasm that drives this flighty, ethereal track.
“Buy U A Drank” had a lot of remixes with a lot of guest rappers, but the most famous of them was the version with Kanye West rapping about how his verse wouldn’t play on Run’s House or at a nun’s house. Kanye loved T-Pain. Soon after “Buy U A Drank” reached #1, Kanye brought T-Pain in to sing on his ebullient single “Good Life.” Kanye sang in Auto-Tune on that one, too. (“Good Life” peaked at #7. It’s a 9.)
T-Pain’s guest-singer run went way beyond “Good Life.” After “Buy U A Drank,” T-Pain was omnipresent. The week that “Buy U A Drank” topped the Hot 100, for instance, the late St. Louis rapper Huey sat at #7 with “Pop, Lock & Drop It,” his only hit. That song owed a lot of its success to its remix, with its giddily deranged T-Pain guest-verse. (“Pop, Lock & Drop It” peaked at #6. It’s an 8.) T-Pain was on so many other people’s songs at the time; it was ridiculous. I heard his voice whenever I turned on the radio.
T-Pain will appear in this column again as a guest, but “Buy U A Drank” remains his only chart-topper as lead artist. T-Pain followed that single by teaming up with his label boss Akon on the #5 hit “Bartender.” (It’s a 7.) Epiphany eventually went double platinum. In 2008, T-Pain released his Three Kingz album, and Lil Wayne, who was also singing in Auto-Tune by that point, appeared on lead single “Can’t Believe It.” (That one peaked at #7. It’s a 5. The Auto-Tuned version of Wayne will soon appear in this column.)
Two weeks after Three Kingz, Kanye West released 808s & Heartbreak, a whole album where he barely rapped at all. Instead, Kanye dedicated the record to his version of T-Pain’s Auto-Tune singing style. But Kanye didn not attempt to replicate T-Pain’s euphoric tone. Kanye sounded cold and destroyed, and he sang about desperate loneliness over clanking, minimal electro. I happen to think that 808s is a masterpiece; most days, it’s my favorite Kanye album. (Kanye has lately made it hard to have a favorite Kanye album, but I still have one, and it’s that.) T-Pain could’ve never made an album like 808s & Heartbreak, but 808s & Heartbreak couldn’t exist without T-Pain.
One of Kanye West’s friends was less excited about that technique. In 2009, an out-of-retirement Jay-Z showed up as a surprise guest at Hot 97 Summer Jam, and he debuted a new song called “DOA (Death Of Auto-Tune).” Jay never says T-Pain’s name on that song, but it’s clearly his attempt to return rap to a more familiar sound: “This is anti-Auto-Tune, death of the ringtone/ This ain’t for iTunes/ This ain’t for singalongs.” While Jay performed that track for the first time, T-Pain, who was also on that Summer Jam bill, crashed the stage, stood next to Jay, and struck a pose. That was a ballsy move. Imagine having the presence of mind to do that. Imagine having the showmanship instincts. (When Lil Mama tried a similar move at the VMAs in 2010, it didn’t go so well.) “DOA (Death Of Auto-Tune)” peaked at #24, and Auto-Tune did not die.
T-Pain hasn’t had a top-10 hit since 2011, when he got to #10 with “5 O’Clock,” a song where he and Wiz Khalifa flirt with a Lily Allen sample. (“5 O’Clock” is a 7. Since Lily Allen has a featured credit on that one, it’s technically her highest-charting single. As lead artist, Allen’s biggest US hit is 2007’s “Smile,” which peaked at #47. Wiz Khalifa will eventually appear in this column.) But other rappers piggybacked on 808s & Heartbreak, using T-Pain’s Auto-Tune style to access headier melodies and deeper emotions. A whole lot of singing Auto-Tune rappers — Drake, Future, Travis Scott, plenty more — will appear in this column in the days ahead. All of them owe something to T-Pain.
T-Pain has a tortured relationship with Auto-Tune that goes beyond that conversation with Usher on the plane. In 2009, T-Pain announced that he would no longer use Auto-Tune, and he launched his own imitation app, which he called I Am T-Pain. T-Pain also sued Antares, the company behind Auto-Tune, claiming unauthorized use of his name. (Antares countersued, and they settled out of court.) T-Pain didn’t use Auto-Tune when he won the first season of The Masked Singer in 2019. He also didn’t use it on his mega-viral Tiny Desk Concert in 2014. It turns out that “Buy U A Drank” sounds pretty great without Auto-Tune, as long as T-Pain is the one singing it.
If you can sing like that, then nobody can justifiably accuse you of fucking up music. T-Pain found a fresh, weird new application of existing technology, and then a whole lot of other people took his innovation to different places. That’s how it’s supposed to work. This column will soon look at more songs that feature T-Pain, and it’ll look at a whole lot more songs built on the foundation that T-Pain built.
BONUS BEATS: The great Texan rap duo UGK appeared on a “Buy U A Drank” remix, and the late UGK member Pimp C also rapped over a “Buy U A Drank” sample on “Let’s Talk Money,” an unreleased Lil Wayne collab that showed up on some mixtapes. Pimp’s verse eventually appeared on “What Up?,” a posthumously released 2010 single that featured Bun B and Drake. Here’s “Let’s Talk Money”:
(Pimp C never scored any Hot 100 hits as a solo artist. UGK’s only Hot 100 hit as lead artists is 2007’s “International Players Anthem (I Choose You),” their masterpiece of an Outkast collaboration. “International Players Anthem” peaked at #70. UGK also guested on Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’,” which peaked at #18 in 2000. Lil Wayne will be in this column pretty soon.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Wiz Khalifa rapping over a “Buy U A Drank” sample on his 2008 mixtape track “Talk To Me”:
(Wiz Khalifa will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: T-Pain himself basically remade “Buy U A Drank” with his 2021 Kehlani collab “I Like Dat.” Here’s the inexplicably Western-themed video:
(“I Like Dat” peaked at #97. Kehlani’s highest-charting single as lead artist is 2016’s “Gangsta,” which peaked at #41. Kehlani also guested on Cardi B’s 2018 track “Ring,” which peaked at #28.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Kid Laroi sing-rapping over a “Buy U A Drank” sample on his 2021 leak “Only One (Buy U A Drank)”:
(The Kid Laroi will eventually appear in this column.)
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books, and it has a whole chapter on “Buy U A Drank” and the role of voice-distortion technology in pop history. Buy u a book.