A Singer Who Is Eager to Embrace the Absurd
By JON CARAMANICA
T-Pain on Sunday evening at the Hammerstein Ballroom.
The R&B singers Ashanti and Lloyd also performed.
Rahav Segev for The New York Times
T-Pain had a few reasons to be indignant on Sunday night at the Hammerstein Ballroom. For one, though he was headlining, the singer had not been advertised to appear at this show, dubbed the Dr. Pepper School’s Out Concert and presented by the hip-hop and R&B radio station Hot 97 (WQHT-FM). Secondly, almost from the moment he came on — flashing his gold teeth and wearing white sunglasses and a purple top hat that recalled Willy Wonka — he was being rushed off to meet a Hammerstein curfew.
That might not have been so upsetting if T-Pain didn’t have so many hits, which leads to his third source of frustration: everyone is trying to sound like him. “To me it all sounds like a bunch of karaoke,” he rapped at the beginning of his set, to the tune of Rocko’s defiant “Umma Do Me.”
“It’s the hip-hop circus,” he said. “I’m the ringleader.”
On this patience-testing night full of sound difficulties, artist no-shows (Lil Mama, Shawty Lo) and some unreasonably long gaps between acts, the Tallahassee, Fla., rapper-turned-singer T-Pain was a welcome relief, not only for his sticky, elastic songs, which dominate hip-hop radio with their robotic, Auto-Tune-enhanced vocals, but also for his willingness to embrace the absurd. Often the hook-singing sidekick to far rougher rappers, he was clearly enthusiastic about being the night’s top dog, shouting loudly throughout his set and dancing with unexpected limberness.
And gratefully, this lineup did not include any T-Pain sound-alikes. Earlier in the night the R&B singers Ashanti and Lloyd turned in smooth performances, perhaps too slick for this stage; while Lloyd was fluidly dancing, staff members were busily readying turntables for T-Pain’s D.J. behind him.
The Chicago rapper Yung Berg roused the thin crowd momentarily with his hit “Sexy Lady,” but he was outmaneuvered by his chain, featuring a diamond-encrusted Transformers logo, which swayed hypnotically side to side like a pendulum. He was followed by the surprisingly resilient singer Ray J, who elicited squeals when he removed his shirt, but impressed even more with a pensive, charming rearrangement of his 2005 hit “One Wish.”
The lineup consisted mostly of out-of-towners, which might explain why the audience was loudest during the opening moments of “Hi Hater,” by Maino. It is exactly the sort of song you would expect to hear from a Southern rapper — chipper, straightforward, anchored by a reliable catchphrase. That it comes from a (relatively) young, (relatively) new rapper from Brooklyn is cause for notice and excitement.
But even Maino’s quick burst of force couldn’t hold up against T-Pain’s sustained assault. Given the abbreviated nature of his set, T-Pain quickly shifted from playing full songs, to just verses, to having his D.J. play the first few notes of a song before cutting it off. The result was something like a game of Name That Tune — the warm “I’m Sprung”; the Kanye West collaboration “Good Life”; the hook from 2 Pistols’ woozy “She Got It”; and fleeting bits of Flo Rida’s “Low,” Baby Bash’s “Cyclone” and Chris Brown’s “Kiss Kiss” — making for a performance that consisted, in large part, of reminders. (Can an all-ringtone performance be far off?)
As T-Pain was counting down the minutes until he would be forced offstage, Day26, the R&B group that opened the show about two and a half hours earlier, was raining fliers down on the crowd from the upper balcony. The members then made their way to the lobby, where they posed for pictures with fans.
About a quarter of the audience abandoned T-Pain for the opportunity; after an unstructured jumble of a night, the ringleader could tame them only so much.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company