Mid-Aughts Throwback: T-Pain featuring Young Joc – Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)
As far as we’re concerned, pop music started in 2000. So we’re never going to throw it back any further. If you find that troubling, ask yourself, Do I actually want to listen to a guy named williedollars explain The Police to me? If the answer happens to be yes, well we do have a comments section.
Riding the bus in middle school provided a fascinating look into things I typically wasn’t cool enough to know about. The closer to the back of the bus I sat (always looking aloof, pretending like I was more interested in the book in my lap than the conversation behind me), the m0re scandalous the things I heard. A homeschooled version of me would probably be smarter and a more productive member of society, but he wouldn’t know intimately the mechanics of sex with mothers or the proper context in which to use the word faggot (answer: every context). And he wouldn’t have heard the pop music that one cool bus driver played every afternoon. You know that bus driver, the one you prayed to get on your bus at the start of each year because that bus driver turned on the radio. And in early 2007 (my eighth grade year), the radio played Buy U a Drank.
Public school me was cool with that. He was more than cool with it. He felt like he just got in on the ground floor of a revolution. I imagine what I felt the first time I heard T-Pain (and Young Joc!) was like what the Jacobins felt the first time Robespierre rolled out a guillotine. They were probably like, “Robots. Fucking robots.” And then that switched into: “This is the future. Oh my god. This, this is the future.” And that’s what Auto-Tune was like.
It had been kind of hanging around for a little bit by that point. Cher was, as always, ahead of her time when she used it in 1998’s Believe. It languished on pop’s outskirts the next seven years until T-Pain himself decided to make an entire album dependent on it, 2005’s Rapper Ternt Sanga. (T-Pain doesn’t always speel thangs gud. Blame the schools in Tallahassee.) But while that album’s best single, I’m ‘n Luv (Wit a Stripper), was a top-five hit, America was just not ready for a song explicitly about strippers from an unknown rapper to be a pop-culture phenomenon. Still, that song previewed the two ingredients for Nappy Boy’s success with Buy U a Drank: the auto-tune, yes, but also a charming confidence in what he was doing.
Not anyone could’ve started the auto-tune revolution. The big reason T-Pain did is that he acted like he was actually starting a revolution. The kids call it swagger. I guess when Akon’s got your back in the mid-aughts, it’s your prerogative to be confident, but Pain made music like he knew he was going to be a star from day one. He comfortably performed a debut single (I’m Sprung) about being devoted to his wife and then when he did move to more hip hop-mainstream subjects with Stripper and Drank, he created all-encompassing tracks just like a seasoned vet. In both songs, he doesn’t just hop in singing like he’s got something to prove; he lets the piercing synth beat establish itself while he coolly rolls into the song with a seductive one-off intro. When public school me heard him sing “Snap yo fingers / Do ya step / You can do it all by yourself” I was immediately on notice. Something epic and unknown was happening, yet it had a very clearly defined leader. The rest of the bus felt it too. T-Pain knew the only way to stop the barrage of mom jokes: get the jokers singing to his song on the radio.
But of course we weren’t just singing due to swagger alone. Usher, R. Kelly, or heck, even Akon could’ve dropped the shawty snappin’ line more sweetly and with more panache than Pain. The man’s ridiculous run of success in the late-aughts was due almost solely to that robot voice. It’s important to note, again, that he was a robot with natural charm and swagger, but also that he was, indeed, a robot. Obviously auto-tune takes the “human” out of human voices, and the genius of T-Pain is that he recognized that was exactly what people were looking for in pop music. In 2007, we weren’t listening to pop radio to hear some earth-shatteringly great voice; in the pre-Adele years, the only “great voices” on pop radio were the American Idols who flopped out one by one. The tinselly novelty of Pain’s voice suddenly made us interested in a song’s vocal performance again simply because we couldn’t place it as that of any specific person. But then Nappy Boy extended that effect: the reason Buy U a Drank is better than the auto-tuned songs before and (mostly) after it is that he dehumanizes not just vocals, but lyrics too. The song’s lyrics are almost entirely quoted from various other Southern hip hop songs: the robot calibrated his lyrics into the most impersonal yet decadent word soup for his audience just as he calibrated his voice into the most ethereal crooning they’d heard.
Let me make a ridiculous leap in trying to explain the appeal of this to ca. early-2007 Americans: we were four months or so away from the bubble bursting and the great recession. We all knew we’d been stacking loans on loans on loans for years and that it all had to come back to bite us some day and that day was probably coming up faster that we’d like to admit, BUT WE DIDN’T WANT TO HEAR IT. 2007 WAS NOT A GOOD YEAR FOR TAKING RESPONSIBILITY IN AMERICA. So it makes sense that our hero on the radio was a guy who wasn’t going to take any personal responsibility for his music by making it as alien and distant as possible. We all wanted to believe T-Pain when he implored us to “Get drunk / Forget what we did.”
Well, that or we were fourteen years old and just glad we knew the same songs the cool kids did.