Q&A with T-Pain

T-Pain is my mom’s favorite rapper – Rappa Ternt Sanga, as defined by the Grammy-winner’s 2005 debut album. Mom may not remember “I’m ‘n Luv (Wit A Stripper)” or the hilarious “I’m on a Boat” from Saturday Night Live, among his other hits that defined the early ‘00s, but she thinks he’s funny, talented and voted for him (or his Green Monster persona) on Fox TV’s The Masked Singer, which he won, ditching the trademark autotune and shocking judges and viewers alike with versatile, soulful singing chops.

After taking a break from creating and producing hit after hit for nearly two decades, on top of holing up at home to perfect the work-life balance in lockdown, T-Pain is ready to re-emerge with a new album, Precious Stones, due out this Fall, a podcast, a popular Twitch video game stream, a mixology book that pairs cocktails with songs from his catalog, and so many other projects and collaborations, he likely forgot about them. As much of a chore as the inevitable touring and promotion may be, T-Pain seems optimistic about hitting the road again, now as a self-managed, “independent” artist.

Music Connection chatted with the indie rappa ternt sanga via zoom, getting a glimpse at T-Pain in his most comfortable setting: his basement ternt studio.

Music Connection: I’m loving your office. Is that a new home studio? You must have been keeping busy. Is a lot of that new modeling?

T-Pain: Yes, I’ve had a lot of time in quarantine. I finally had a chance to sit down, get off tour. Not trying to please the masses. It was my turn to get back in the house and make sure everything is settled before leaving again, which is happening now. I’m glad I got a lot of stuff done.

MC: How are you feeling about the “wrapping up” of the pandemic?

T: It’s not really wrapping up, just getting more lenient. I don’t miss the hustle and bustle. I definitely don’t miss the road. Staying at home was fucking great! Making money playing video games, chilling at the house. I can come downstairs and get work done and come upstairs and go to sleep. Chill with the wife and kids. That’s the part I’m going to miss the most. And I definitely don’t miss airport security.

The fact that there are more opportunities coming in all the major cities: Miami, New York, L.A.––the fact that some things do need to be done in person––I’d rather sit at home and play video games and watch movies.

MC: Have you played a game, on Twitch, basically every day?

T: No! It’s been five days since I streamed last. Before that was 17 days. I’ve been doing so much stuff at home, getting things done at the house. A lot has been transpiring that would otherwise not be happening. I’ve been making music. I take advantage of that. When I record, I can put my Pro Tools on Twitch instead of playing games. I don’t really have a Twitch schedule. I keep it that way for when opportunities come up. If it falls on a day I’m supposed to be streaming, I don’t have to apologize to my fans. It’s like, ‘There’s no stream today. Just wait.’ It’s an easier schedule to not have a schedule.

MC: Is touring on the horizon for you?

T: Yes, and we will definitely integrate Twitch time. We’ve learned from previous times to approach it differently, to make sure it’s not just work work work work work and I’m stressing myself out. When we show up to certain cities and we know there are drifters, I will hit up the race track. If there are other streamers in that city, I can stream with them. We’re going to integrate the things that I love instead of just: show, meet-and-greet, hotel, plane, show, meet-and-greet, hotel… We’re basically going to make it fun. It was fun before, but we’re going to integrate the things I don’t have to force fun into.

     When we get to the hotel, there will be a whole streaming setup. We have people coming through, we can film a podcast in the room. We are going to get back out there, hit the road again, but we’re gonna make it mine, instead of just me being on the road.

MC: For all walks of life in the pandemic, we’ve learned that family and mental health comes first. Is being self-managed a help for moving forward?

T: For sure! The things I love are not really important to a third party. I can finally prioritize the things I actually like doing. There’s no manager who wants to see you playing video games in the studio. They are like, ‘Get work done. Why aren’t you doing this…?’ I’m like, this is helping me get inspired before getting in the booth. I’m listening to the music. I’m playing games. These are giving me emotions and feelings I wouldn’t get just listening to a beat. I can get motivated by playing. If I’m playing Breath of the Wild while listening to a dope soft ballad, this is going to help the journey. And vice versa, the music is going to help me finish the game.     

The fact that I’m doing it myself, I can prioritize the things I love and my mental health and the things I need to get actual work done, and not just quantity over quality. I used to bang out three songs a day and get as much work done as possible. Now I can do a song a week, but every song is gonna be an absolute banger. I record music now when I’m inspired. When I know something great is gonna come out of it. Not just force myself to make a ton of shit. Mental health has grown in importance and it helps to know I’m in charge of it.

MC: Would you have wanted to be more in charge any earlier in your career?

T: I don’t think I was ready. I think everything happened right on time. I wouldn’t have wanted to be managing my mental health and career while I had my drinking problem. I wanted to have fun all the time. I hadn’t grown yet, mentally. My maturity wasn’t there. This is the time and season when things are getting better. I see more. I’ve grown. I can take care of myself, which helps to know that I wasn’t ready.

MC: For up-and-coming artists, it seems like it helps to have the guidance to not get sucked into quantity over quality.

T: You definitely don’t want to do that. But that’s the motto of the game. People feel like the way to success is to do more than everybody else. That’s just not what it is. It’s about having yourself in order. It’s about doing what you love. You have to have something in place that lets you know when you love your music and not ‘I banged out seven songs today and I’m proud of myself.’ If you knocked out seven bangers then yes be proud. But if they won’t see the light of day…

You have all these artists like, ‘I have 300 songs ready to go’––it’s like, you don’t have 300 songs ready. You have 300 songs that you did… That’s why they haven’t gone. You rushed them out and you didn’t think about it. You have 300 songs that are gonna sit on your hard drive for the rest of your career until someone finds them. You thought that was the thing to do. You have to pay attention and give a shit about what you’re doing. This is a representation of you. And if someone finds those songs, you’re gonna be mad when they leak, because you know you didn’t put your all into it and you know you didn’t give a shit about what they sound like. You were in the studio, high as hell, and just knocking out random-ass lines out of nowhere and it sounded good at the time. Then when you’re sober you ask, ‘What the fuck was I doing?’

(laughs) Coming from one artist to the rest. We know what those 300 songs sound like. That’s why they’re sitting on the hard drive. You just dropped an album and you still have 300 songs? You have 300 songs and you don’t want those streams? You can just drop them and get 1 stream per song. You can make some money off of those. So why haven’t you dropped them? Because you know they sound like shit!

MC: That sounds like it’s from your experience. It must happen every day.    

T: We see it all the time. It’s the quality… Quantity shit doesn’t work for anybody…

MC: Let’s move right on to Precious Stones. Are you happy with the quality on the new album? Is it finished? Was a lot of it done in quarantine?

T: It’s actually not finished. I’m trying to set goals for myself. I think I need three more songs, but I’m trying to make them the three songs. A lot was done in quarantine. A lot was done with my wife. A lot was done on Twitch. There’s a song that was done entirely on Twitch. Entirely by Twitch. The bass guitar and lead guitar on “Simpin Ain’t Easy’’ was done by another Twitch streamer. The lyrics were written by my chat on Twitch. I was doing it live. We recorded the song live. Everything happened on Twitch. It made it not only an important piece, but probably the first time that has ever happened. And it actually made it on the album and it’s gonna be a single. We just shot a video for it.

It’s been a journey, but Precious Stones is one of my most proud bodies of work, for sure. I did a lot of it with my family. My wife has been writing with me. My daughter sings on one of the songs. Just coming together with my family and actually putting that part of my life into my career is different for me because I’ve always held that separate. I’ve always had a separate life for music and a separate life for family. But bringing those two entities together was a special thing. When you really think about it, it should always be like that.

    But we’re taught at an early age if you want to be successful, don’t be married. If you want to have time for your music, then don’t have kids. That was just the glitz and glam of the celebrity world. We felt we had to stay single. Then you start seeing all these people with wives and kids, but also rich, and you think, wait a minute––you can do both. It took me a pretty good amount of time and a lot of maturity to realize I need to bring both of those things together and it works out. Having this be the album that this happens on, I’m very proud of it, being that I’m super independent and really able to be in charge of what I want to do. I realize it’s been so important this whole time. Going through quarantine and getting to sit down and marinate on music has been helpful. Precious Stones is definitely gonna reflect that.

MC: I love to hear that you’re happy where you’re at and your family’s at. They are your precious stones...

T: Absolutely. That was fire. Good job.

MC: I was able to hear some of the tracks. I didn’t know “Simpin” was collaborated and recorded like that. I thought another one, “Soul on Fire,” was a new level for you. It’s dark. It’s deep. Is that a lot of the writing style that you have been looking for?

T: That’s like my favorite song on the whole project. That whole song was basically the relationship I have with music. It picks you up and breaks you down at the same time. The whole industry chews you up, spits you out. “Soul on Fire” is a representation of all the shit I’ve been through. I can turn my back on music, but it’s always going to bring me back. It’s a love-hate relationship, and “Soul on Fire” is definitely how I wanted to portray and convey that message.

The writing style of the full project is just fun. I didn’t have a lot of people in the studio with me. I couldn’t have friends over while I was writing so it’s a lot of reflection, but a lot of things I missed during quarantine. Getting my brain back functioning like a normal human who can go outside was a big task.

     I realize I should have been working like this for a long time. Sitting in here by myself. Coming up with songs. Calling my wife down when I come up with a dope line. ‘Babe listen to this shit!’ She comes in with her suggestions and it runs so smooth. The writing style just came from me actually being in the studio by myself and breathing. Letting things happen and not trying to hurry up to impress the people in the room. If I had to do a line a thousand times to get it right, I can do it. It’s not gonna annoy anyone. No dudes bringing girls through. I’m in the studio trying to impress them too. It’s a cool way to just relax. Chill the fuck out and get the project done and not impress the people in the room to knock out seven songs a day.

MC: Are you also able to be in charge of who you’re working with? The collaborations…

T: Oh yeah! (laughs) I can actually delegate who enters my space. I can’t stress enough how important that is. Even when I’m picking features, you’re not just going to get the most popular person. You can actually go and pick someone who’s retired. Getting Carlos Santana on a song. You can get your idols, people who you want instead of people you think you need for streams. They don’t have to be the most popular. They can be the most thoughtful. It all falls back to the quality. Not how big of an artist you can get. It’s the artist that fits the damn song. You can’t force a popular artist on a song and think this should work because of the names on the song, then people hear it and think it doesn’t match at all. It’s not a popularity contest anymore. When you’re not trying to be the biggest in the room, you can be the most beautiful. That authenticity breaks through the popularity contest.

MC: “I Like Dat” with Kehlani. It picks up right where we left off [with 2007’s “Buy U A Drank”]. I’m sure you heard Kehlani’s voice on the track even before you sent an email to her about it.

T: Oh my god, it’s so beautiful. And she did it in a day! Usually we have to wait. It was such a––I don’t want to say miracle––but people don’t do that. She called me and we Facetimed. She was writing it on Facetime. She asked, ‘What do you say here? Okay, I’m gonna say this.’ She included me in her process. Kehlani is an anomaly. She was so great to work with. We worked together before, right at the beginning of her career. Once she got signed, [the label] sent her to my studio and we didn’t get any work done. We were just laughing and joking and shit. This time was great.
      “I Like Dat” came out better than I could have imagined. Now we’re already on Kimmel. The song was the number one most added to radio. I couldn’t have imagined. I was just making beautiful music. It wasn’t my intent to do what it’s doing right now. The fact that the authenticity comes through on the speaker helps a lot.

    I plan on doing it a lot more. Bringing out the authenticity. Letting people hear what it sounds like when you actually give a shit about what you’re doing. That’s what it’s about.

MC: Before we go, I know you have a mixology book coming out [Can I Mix You A Drink?]. And The Nappy Boy Podcast. It was crazy with Mike Tyson. We’ll have to talk again in a few months!

T: [The podcast] was insane! I loved it. And while I was out in L.A., we did a bunch more episodes. A lot more is coming. Get ready for all that. It’s a mess! But we got it done, god dammit!

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