Whether you are an auto-tune fan or not, I think we can agree that T-Pain is not afraid to innovate. He popularized the use of auto-tune in songs like “Buy You a Drank” and “Bartender,” mixed singing and rapping into one flow (“Hard&B”), and was a fan-favorite featuring artist on a variety of other work such as Flo Rida’s “Low” and Lil Wayne’s “Got Money.” However, in the Netflix series This Is Pop, T-Pain gets real about his struggles during the backlash of auto-tune, recounting a conversation with Usher that kicked off depression. A turning point in the conversation of the love-hate relationship between musicians, audiences, and auto-tune was T-Pain’s acoustic Tiny Desk performance in 2014, where he showed off that he does not need auto-tune to sound good. Indeed, he has a strong voice all on his own.
Still, there was a sense that T-Pain had something to prove, perhaps motivating him to join the first cast of The Masked Singer in 2019, a television show where celebrities hide their identities behind costumes and sing, only revealing who they are when they are eliminated or when they win. T-Pain ended up revealing himself at the very end, by winning, and surprising the judges. One of his star performances during the season was of Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me,” and that song actually makes another appearance on his new cover album On Top of the Covers.
T-Pain’s cover album maintains a similar spirit to his previous endeavors, whether he is still searching for redemption after the death of auto-tune or finally at peace asserting his raw talent. He has chosen each song on the album to show off his vocal range and power, spanning from old standards to hits through the ages. You will hear plenty of vocal runs that assert “listen to what I can do,” but they do so without an overbearing bravado, just confidence.
Instead of relying on a computer to back him up, T-Pain layers his own voice intricately throughout the entire album. You can hear it in the Glee-like chorus accompaniment in “Don’t Stop Believin’.” His choosing “Don’t Stop Believin'” in the first place makes me think T-Pain is not taking himself too seriously with this cover album. It’s a guilty pleasure song, and perhaps not one that would first come to mind for someone whose brand is “Hard&B”. He wants to share the joy in singing, and who doesn’t feel that little thrill when you catch this song on the radio?
The most stripped-down song on On Top of the Covers is “Tennessee Whiskey.” Here, there is only the faintest accompaniment, although it waxes and wanes as the song goes on. The vocal layering returns, a chorus of T-Pains crooning. The country song turns bedroom pop with some simple percussion choices. But the vocals remain the focus throughout; each time you think there can’t possibly be any more emotion or vigor expressed, T-Pain takes it up a notch. He reaches without straining, and it’s how we wish we sounded while belting out our favorite song in front of the mirror.
Closing out the album is another surprise: “War Pigs,” a Black Sabbath song. The rock and roll edge suits T-Pain, and his flair comes in with the gospel organ sounds replacing electric guitar in the main lick. Ending on a song that just as much emphasizes the “jam” aspect as the vocals leaves us wanting more. Encore, encore!
Overall, On Top of the Covers is a winner. There is something for every listener, and we get to hear a new side of T-Pain.
On Top of the Covers tracklist
- A Change is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke cover)
- Don’t Stop Believin’ (Journey cover)
- Sharing The Night Together (Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show cover)
- Skrangs (in K Major Sus) (original)
- Stay With Me (Sam Smith cover)
- Tennessee Whiskey (Chris Stapleton cover)
- That’s Life [feat. NandoSTL] (Marion Montgomery cover, popularized by Frank Sinatra)
- War Pigs (Black Sabbath cover)