A fluffy monster stands alone on a stage. Lit in solemn blues and whites, he starts to sing as the instrumental to Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” plays in the background. Jenny McCarthy rises from her seat, Ken Jeong looks on mouth agape. It turns out Robin Thicke is still a thing, and he is also there. Nicole Scherzinger cries. No, this isn’t some Instagram meme yet to land on your ‘Discover’ page, it’s the season finale of American ‘talent show’ The Masked Singer, and this is the sequence of events that led to the release of T-Pain’s new album, 1UP.
For the uninitiated, The Masked Singer is a TV series in which celebrities, mostly well beyond their sell-by date, compete in a singing contest wearing elaborate outfits to conceal their identity. It’s essentially The Voice for people who think that the judges starting with their backs turned was too subtle. The first season just wrapped, and T-Pain (aka The Monster) was crowned its winner. To celebrate his victory – which to be clear was pre-taped and chosen by the studio audience rather than any kind of public vote – T-Pain surprised released 1UP. All context considered, it’s a pretty decent effort.
When performing as The Monster, T-Pain eschewed his trademark autotune in favor of his natural voice and proved beyond doubt that he has chops. It would have been easy for him then, to cash in on his win with a ‘stripped-back’ album full of sad ballads and heartfelt moments, designed to show the world a more tender side to the man that gifted us “I’m In Love With a Stripper.” Luckily, T-Pain knows better, and on 1UP he’s back on his bullshit, crooning like the saddest, horniest, most flamboyant robot you ever did see.
Take second track “RIP to the Parking Lot,” featuring Boosie Badazz, for example. At once celebratory, braggadocious and deeply melancholic, Pain pays tribute to low-rider meet-ups, boasting about his Gucci seats in the same breath that he admits “she don’t wanna fuck me, she wanna fuck my car.” A heavily melodic track, with every emotion heightened by Pain’s robotic yelps, it’s catchier than the plague.
Meanwhile, “It’s My Dog Birthday” is a completely shameless turn-up anthem that’s also surprisingly heart-warming. In T-Pain’s hands, tequila shots and popped bottles become tokens of appreciation for the friend in question, and I defy anyone not to grin from ear to ear as a thousand harmonizing T-Pain’s declare “this all is for you.” Through all the slick production and layered vocals, a dominant feeling emerges; the feeling that T-Pain cares about you and he wants you to have a good time.
If anything sums up T-Pain’s place in the culture, it’s that feeling. Since the early days of “I’m Sprung” through his Lonely Island collaboration to his appearance on The Masked Singer, T-Pain just wants people to be happy. If other artists brag about their wealth to distance themselves from the listener, T-Pain does it to include them. “We All We Got” captures that spirit nicely. A little more pared back compared to some of the album’s singles, it’s a track overflowing with uplifting bars and invitations to ride with T-Pain. Similarly, “Goat Talk,” featuring Lil Wayne, lets you in on two icons spilling the secrets of their success, though Wayne can’t help but discipline his peers, lamenting “if these rappers are my sons, as a parent I have failed.”
Of course, this is a T-Pain album, and that means there are going to be songs about sex. While most of the references are harmless, occasionally some bars veer into the realm of uncomfortable misogyny. Fuccboi texters anthem “U Up” marks the first dud after the album’s rock-solid start, and the opening bars to “Keep This from Me” are almost laughable, though you get the sense T-Pain might have known that when he wrote them. The less said about the Tory Lanez featuring “Getcha Roll On” the better.
But for most of the time, 1UP is standard T-Pain fare. He’s still one of the best when it comes to the use of autotune, and when they’re done right (such as on the album’s title track), the bangers on 1UP sound timeless. On his sixth album, the Florida native has not reinvented his sound or shattered people’s preconceptions; if anything, this is an album designed to reaffirm them after the shock of his victory on The Masked Singer. However, what 1UP does do is reiterate T-Pain’s place in the history of modern hip-hop and pop, reminding us that The Monster knows how to write a hook. Rap music may have changed a lot during his career, but if T-Pain proves anything with his new album, it’s that a strong melody, some well-pitched autotune and enough tequila will always make a good party.