Jay-Z would like a moment of silence for Auto-Tune, the pitch-tweaking software that gave us basically every Billboard Hot 100 song since Summer 2007. On his latest album, The Blueprint III, the rapper heralds an end to the revamped vocoder and needles his contemporaries for “T-Paining too much.” But is Auto-Tune really “D.O.A.”?
Hardly. In its most subtle form, Auto-Tune makes kinda okay singers sound like John Mayer; in its late-decade form, it makes everyone sound like T-Pain, a liability T-Pain himself has been quick to exploit. On Friday, he released “I Am T-Pain,” an iPhone app that lets users Auto-Tune themselves in real time, on the go, for $2.99. It also conveniently bundles in several background tracks for karaoke emergencies. If you want proof that the “I am T-Pain” app is evil, look no further than this video review by CNet’s Justin Yu:
Nerds everywhere went bananas over stuff like this, and “I Am T-Pain” promptly shot to No. 2 at the app store. Yet by Tuesday, when Jay-Z’s long-anticipated 11th album dropped, all anybody could talk about was the song “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune).”
The track is an indictment against “computer assisted singing” or whatever MTV dubs it these days. The rhymes are back to Black Album quality. The melody swoops from electric baseline to klezmer clarinet and back, showcasing witty lyrics and musical maturity that makes infections singles like Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” and Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It” feel cheap and one-dimensional at best. (See below.)
But is it really fair for rap’s premier powerbroker, the 40-year-old, multimillionaire, Obama-inauguration-front-row-sitter Jay-Z to pick on T-Pain, the 25-year-old only-marginally multimillionare Tallahassee rapper whose fame derives primarily from raunchy lyrics and the computer program he singlehandedly made famous? Well, no, and yes.
Auto-Tune is now so pervasive in the music industry that it’ll probably never die completely, even if we stop hearing it so much. Recently, The New Yorker‘s pop-music critic Sascha Frere Jones argued that T-Pain was no different from John Lennon in that he used the tools of the time to try to achieve the sound in his head. That might be true, but while Lennon’s finished product was absolutely unique, listeners could be forgiven for confusing an Auto-Tuned Drake for a similarly distorted Lil Wayne. And while there might be room for a few more Jay-Z knockoffs, another less-talented, less-creative version of T-Pain is something everybody should be bummed about.