Every year we lose one of our legends. It’s always too soon and it’s always the same routine; everyone’s fingers race to the closest keyboard and proceed to publicly pay their respects over the internet. All of their albums shoot to the top of the iTunes and streaming charts. There are tributes at the next big-ticket award show and then the inevitable posthumous albums or reissues follow in the coming year. Rinse and repeat. I see it year after year and as time passes and our teens turn to twentys and twentys turn to fiftys, the fact that death is undefeated starts to set in. They always say to give people their flowers while they can still smell them, but what does it mean? Does that mean having these tributes for artists while they’re alive? Lifetime achievement awards? Or maybe something else entirely. There is no right answer, but I think it’s more simple than death likes to make it. For 99% of us, we never actually know the singer, actress or artist that passes away. We know their art and what it made us feel. What it meant to us. The place it brings us back to. So sure, let’s give them all the roses and let them smell every single one of them while they’re still breathing. More importantly, let’s thank them while they’re here and stop making their music footnotes until they die. Let’s stop forgetting artists who ruled an era just to cast them aside once the decade turns.
What brought about all of those serious thoughts? Last month I was pre-gaming with some friends before heading out for a night of heavy drinking and whoever was on AUX-cord duty was in a serious mid-2000s throwback mood. I wasn’t complaining, but somewhat drunk me did have one of those random moments of clarity in between shots: T-Pain and Akon not only ruled that era, they still sound just as good today as they did then. In 2004, Akon burst onto the scene with his rap-sing hit ‘Locked Up’ shortly followed by his Bobby Vinton sampling and first pop hit ‘Lonely’. A year later T-Pain followed with his first hit single ‘I’m Sprung’. I vividly remember that I had never heard anything like T-Pain at the time. I’m not going to sit here and have a history lesson on autotune or the vocoder or who the pioneer of it was. For me, my first introduction was Akon and Pain and I believe I speak for a large group of twenty somethings when I say that. JAY-Z attempted a funeral for it with his ‘Death of Autotune’ in 2009, but if you know anything about the current climate of hip-hop, you know that the tool’s popularity and presence has only increased ten-fold. The difference between the current crop using it today and how T-Pain and Akon used it is soul. Through all of the effects and correction, they were still powerful, soulful voices manipulating their vocals to rule mainstream radio.
And rule mainstream radio they did. Anybody who was conscious between 2005 and 2010 knows that songs from T-Pain and Akon were impossible to escape no matter where you went. They have a storied history together as much as they do as solo acts. The number of classic songs they’ve given to us is only realized when you really go back and look at their 2000s run. The only two artists with a track record during that time that rivaled them were Lil Wayne and Kanye West. Just for perspective, here’s a few quick highlights from the two artists’ chart history:
Akon: 36 appearances on the Hot 100. 13 of them Top 10. 17 Platinum singles. 7 Gold.
T-Pain: 47 appearances on the Hot 100. 15 of them Top 10. 17 Platinum singles. 3 Gold.
It’s important to keep in mind that this was all done before the streaming era where a big artist releases an album and every song from it charts because of new chart rules that are conducive to them doing so. It makes you wonder what artists like Pain and Akon would do in today’s era had they maintained their relevancy and popularity.
This brings up the most interesting part of the stats behind Pain and Akon’s careers. As popular and influential as they were, their album statistics pale in comparison to their singles. It really isn’t that surprising when you think about the times. People weren’t really asking when the new T-Pain album was coming out, they were clamoring for the next single or song that they would be featured on. Still it is unacceptable and crazy to think that Akon never had a number 1 album on the Billboard 200 and T-Pain doesn’t have a platinum album to his name. Surely that would be different had streams (from legendary services like Limewire etc.) and YouTube views been taken into account.
Through all of those songs and memories, whether it was dancing to ‘Buy U A Drank’ at a school dance or screaming “Akon and Young Jeezy” at the top of your lungs when ‘Soul Survivor’ came on, they never transitioned from singles to album artists. This is most evident with the trajectory of their careers in recent years.
T-Pain has been making and breaking promises on release dates for his Stoicville: The Phoenix album since 2013. He later announced that he will instead be releasing an album titled OBLiViON. It doesn’t mean there’s been no music. There’s been singles in between with moderate success, the long overdue release of his collaboration project with Lil Wayne T-Wayne, and the famous NPR Tiny Desk concert where everyone apparently learned that T-Pain could actually sing and didn’t actually need autotune. It’s a shame that the latter is probably the event he has received the most public attention for in the past 5 years. People treating T-Pain like a legacy act and his career like a footnote needs to stop.
Similarly, Akon has been saying that he is going to release his 4-disc album Stadium for over 6 years now. There’s been more release dates than songs released from it. Since his last album, 2008’s Freedom, his focus has been elsewhere. Whether it’s providing power to 600 million people in Africa or creating jobs and encouraging entrepreneurship to Africans, his sights are set on bigger goals. He admitted that he “was a little over-saturated” in a Forbes interview last year during his reign.
T-Pain recently announced his 6-date acoustic tour which sold out almost immediately and continues to promise that an album will come later in the year. Akon reappeared with ‘Yes’, a feature on Dutch DJ Sam Feldt’s new single which could indicate a return to music for him as well.
Whatever the future holds for the two legends, let’s not neglect whenever they do attempt to return to the spotlight. The best flowers you could give them is accepting them with open arms the same way you did in 2007 when that day comes. If their music was important to you at a certain point in time, then pass that feeling on to a friend, a kid or someone random you meet. Introduce them to ‘I’m In Luv With A Stripper’ or one of the many hooks they contributed to DJ Khaled’s earlier work. Some of those anthems still live on like ‘All I do is Win’ which still plays at every major sports arena in North America. Point is, maybe that person you introduce their music to will go from uninformed to fan.
Akon and T-Pain are still two extremely capable artists that people have written off. Maybe when you reach a certain level of popularity in one era, they write you off in the next when the next crop of talent transitions in. Not many artists survive decades, with an “s”, in this industry. Even if you don’t care about a new T-Pain album or a new Akon single in 2017, at least appreciate the years that you did. They ruled an era that defined a generation. A lot of artists owe a thank you note to both Pain and ‘Kon for their influence on the game and genre as a whole. Both artists are still here and even if no one says it, we appreciate you guys. I saw a room full of people in their mid-twenties recite every word to ‘Bartender’ last month and the nostalgia felt in that moment was unprecedented. For moments like that and many more throughout the years, thank You T-Pain. Thank you, Akon. We miss and appreciate you.