Seems like we’re actually entering an era of restrained, sophisticated, and strange R&B. Frank Ocean is turning Stevie Wonder’s subtle moves on Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants into a career. The Weeknd, who was ripped off by Kelly Rowland on “Motivation” almost immediately, and more recently had his fog-soul steez stolen by Usher on “Climax,” Justin Bieber on “As Long As You Love Me,” and Kanye and crew on Cruel Summer‘s “Higher,” has given coasting and complacent pop stars an excuse to experiment. Miguel, better than all of them but apparently afraid to show it before Mr. Tesfaye made it safe, now sings the Zombies over Fabio Frizzi-style synth farts and drops trippy masterworks like it ain’t no thing.
It’s all very exciting. It’s also pretty damned tasteful, isn’t it? And so, what better moment than right now, at the height of “PBR&B”-mania for dread-headed, sunglasses-wearing, top hat-sporting, Auto-Tune addict T-Pain to release a mess of a mixtape called Stoic. I like T-Pain. He’s a funny guy with a shtick, who never took himself too seriously, and figured out a way to turn that stupid thing Cher did on “Believe” into the sound for a couple of years. Then, he turned into a charming urban-radio clown who went a little hard in the guest-feature paint, and showed up on anything and everything, effectively destroying the goofy-ass goodwill he’d built up. But can really you blame him?
Out of those Auto-Tune embers came Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, bombed-out-of-his-gourd-murmuring-through-Auto-Tune Lil Wayne, Bon Iver’s “Woods,” Drake, a tentative but still significant embrace of global dance that uses Auto-Tune and isn’t so caught up on “authenticity” issues surrounding it, and Future. Our ears got accustomed to the wacky warmth of Auto-Tune thanks to T-Pain, and now it’s everywhere. There’s even a case to be made that vocal manipulation, which connects, say, Oneohtrix Point Never to Drake to EDM, is the defining sound of this decade.
He’s a punchline who really, if you think about it, was an innovator. But he’ll never get the credit he deserves. The title of T-Pain’s new mixtape Stoic must in some ways refer to his approach to making music in 2012 because “stoic” is also just a fancy way of saying, “not giving a fuck,” and this mixtape is T-Pain doing whatever the hell he wants. What else can he do at this point? He raps a lot on here, and when he does, he sounds a lot like Meek Mill, actually. The first four songs on Stoic are all in “I’m A Boss” mode. He has none of the raised-on-freestyling-fury of the MMG’s rising star, of course, but when it comes sheer blathering energy, he’s immensely entertaining. From “Ain’t That A Bitch”: “These niggas trying to be the black Bill Gates / But what they can’t see / Is Bill Gates trying to be the white version of me / Ain’t that a bitch?”
And then, Stoic suddenly turns inward. “Breakup” is slurring, soft PBR&B; “Fairytale” finds T-Pain forever arguing with his significant other, but wishing his life was like a fairy tale because things would be simpler and happier, but if he can’t live in a fairy tale, well his other wish is that he had the balls to commit suicide. Seriously. On “I’ll Never Be” and “Suppertime,” he seems to be working with a super-accomplished session band ready to take T-Pain straight to a summer barbecue concert circuit, opening up for say, Frankie Beverly and Maze.
There are also some awesomely terrible (or terribly awesome) moments. Like the kind of poorly executed pandering that still brings a smile to your face. On “I’ll Never Be,” T-Pain indulges some post-Cee Lo “Fuck You” throwback soul with that doofus from Gym Class Heroes. “Monster Mash,” a song about how he’s like Frankenstein and how King Kong ain’t got shit on him (or something), is soundtracked by super-clean surf-rock and ’50s horror theremin. “Going Off” samples the default iPhone ringtone and features Big K.R.I.T.; on “FINGERPRINTING 15,” he does his version of Lady Gaga with the help of Pitbull, and beats Taio Cruz, Jason Derulo, and other cloying Auto-crooners at their own post-T-Pain game. There is no reason why this isn’t a hit, save for its baffling ALL-CAPS title.
If you pick and choose from Stoic‘s 22 tracks, you could make a pretty solid album. There are a dozen or so songs that, if sequenced correctly, would be one of the better, odder R&B relases of the year. There are also at least two schizophrenic EPs if you just divide the tracks into two playlists. A batshit crazy one that we’ll call The Champ: “The Champ,” “Ain’t That A Bitch,” “Don’t You Quit,” “Rhock En Rollah,” “FINGERPRINTING 15,” “Monster Mash,” “Mind Fucked,” “Blapper,” “Going Off,” “I’ll Never Be,” and “Hang Ups.” And a depressive, subdued one that we’ll stick to calling Stoic: “Breakup,” “Hole in My Pocket,” “Down There,” “Fairytale,” “Wool Over My Eyes,” “Streets Saved Me,” “Invisible Girl,” “Let You Go,” “Why Don’t We,” “SupperTime,” and “Exclusive.”
As it stands, though, Stoic is just nuts. Every transition is as inappropriate as possible. The genuinely touching struggle-rap “Hole in My Pocket” is elbowed out of the way by the completely absurd “Monster Mash.” The surprisingly Maxwell-like “Suppertime,” is followed by “HYFR” wannabe “Hang Ups,” which opens with T-Pain spoken-word-style declaring, “It’s kind of hard not to be a dick / With all these pussies around you.” But where would an excellent T-Pain album actually get this guy in 2012? No one is really looking for that. Instead, we get this sprawling, inspired mess. I’ll take it. You can have your well-curated collections of painkiller slow jams.