Hip-hop hour: The puzzling genius of T-Pain

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In our age of rapid technological advancement, there is only one question left to ask: “Who is T-Pain?”

No, really. Who is he? Does anyone know? His real name is Faheem Rashad Najm. He’s been happily married for 12 years, and he has three beautiful kids. Did you know any of that?

A dazzling symbol of the ringtone hip-hop zeitgeist, T-Pain was the most manufactured Top 40 novelty that we could have ever asked for — or dreaded, depending on who you are. Distanced by the haze of his trademark Auto-Tune, we never bothered to inquire about Najm’s personal life. We never wondered about the beautiful soul that might have ruminated behind those Oakley shades.

T-Pain’s been troubling me lately. His absence of a public persona is extra uncanny because, if anything, we know way too much about our pop music icons of the 21st century. I’m not just talking about our voyeuristic obsession with tabloid news and Instagram feeds, although they do play a part. It’s the music itself that has become hyperconfessional.

Think about some of the most iconic hip-hop albums of the past half-decade — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Channel Orange, Beyonce. Between the thin spaces of each album’s towering production — the chandelier-sparkling, electro-R&B of “Pyramids,” the sprawling sensuality of “Drunk in Love” — we peer into the most intimate details of the artists’ overexposed personal lives. We hear Frank Ocean brood over his repressed sexuality in a taxicab. We hear Beyonce and Jay-Z have sex just about everywhere. Don’t touch their kitchen sink.

Drake is perhaps the biggest perpetrator. Within the confines of his past few albums, we find an incredibly comprehensive, historical map of every past flame that he’s ever drunk-dialed. Shout out to Courtney from Hooter’s on Peachtree!

These songwriters are definitely putting on a performance — playing a certain character. The fascinating thing is that these characters are exaggerated versions of their actual selves, like the terrifying, hedonistic egomaniac on Kanye’s MBDTF.

We can expand the argument beyond hip-hop. Take a look at the white-girl power pop masterpiece, Taylor Swift’s 1989. On glimmering, new-wave hits such as “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space,” Swift bottles up her problematic reputation and feeds it back to the audience in the most tongue-in-cheek way possible — “Got a long list of ex-lovers / They’ll tell you I’m insane.” Swift beckons for us to ask, “Is that Harry Styles? Is that John Mayer?” We’re left to wonder if she’s been self-aware this entire time.

Like the poetry of Sylvia Plath, these artists let their personal lives bleed so intensely into their songwriting that the borders between their public personas and their performances are practically indistinguishable. We’re experiencing some blurred lines here.

And after we’ve taken this detour, we can return to my quandaries about T-Pain. (Jason, don’t you have better things to think about? Honestly, no.) We might know nothing about Faheem Rajm, but, on the other hand, we do know a whole lot about T-Pain.

T-Pain is a misguided romantic who looks for love in all the wrong places: “I like the bartender” and “I’m in love with a stripper” and so on. He mistakes his beer goggles for experiencing love at first sight — tragically so. In fact, he has an unhealthy obsession with the club, which really worries me. “Broke up with my girl last night, so I went to the club” — no, T-Pain! That’s not how you deal with things!

His world is a nightly revelry, a Dionysian explosion of Grey Goose and “200 bad bitches.” He is doomed to repeat this nightmare of a decadent nightlife, never quenching his thirst for true love or for patron. It’s kind of like “Groundhog Day” and kind of like “The Exterminating Angel,” a surrealist Spanish film about a set of dinner guests who can inexplicably never leave the dining room. (The dining room, in this case, is the club, if that wasn’t clear.)

So we can always expect a T-Pain narrative to start at a club, end with a one-night stand and start over again the next time. Yes, he is a total creep, but that’s the character he plays. Herein lies my main comparison: Just like Kanye, Taylor Swift and all of these other hyperconfessional pop stars, T-Pain has constructed a very comprehensive, familiar character. Yet T-Pain wades against the current of these other pop artists because T-Pain’s character is utterly, unquestionably fictional.

I have never experienced such a clear, unadulterated division as the division between the real Faheem Najm and his hilariously creepy creation, T-Pain. It’s oddly commendable. Najm is the rare artist who separates his private life from his work, which is more than I can say about Kanye West, whom I adore.

And now I wonder if Najm’s music was prophetic in a certain way. Did he see the direction in which pop music was going? Najm was operating at a slightly earlier time — the mid- to late 2000s. Reality TV was taking over, and it was yet another cultural artifact that blurred the lines between life and performance. Was he apprehensive that, within the next decade, the art of oversharing might become the norm?

At this point, even his pioneering use of Auto-Tune seems to be a provocative artistic statement. Najm was criticized for his artificial vocals — way too polished, sounding nothing like his real voice. But I wonder if his vocal style was meant to parallel the artificiality of his persona. The robotic texture of his Auto-Tune makes his listeners hyperaware of the fiction of his music. You can say that the very identity of Faheem Najm has been “Auto-Tuned” by these songs.

But I’m still not sure what to make of any of this. I still don’t have T-Pain figured out. On “Buy U a Drank,” T-Pain sings, “I’m T-Pain / You know me.” Sometimes I think I do, but at other times, T-Pain is a complete enigma to me. His music still keeps me up at night.

No, T-Pain, that is not an invitation to sneak into my bedroom.

Jason Chen is the assistant arts editor, and he writes Monday’s column on hip-hop. Contact him at [email protected].