Across a storied career that has produced both love and animosity amongst the listening public, there's one thing we can all agree on: there is simply no one like T-Pain. As the award-winning recording artist gears up for the release of a cocktail recipe book inspired by his life, art, and philosophy, he spoke to us for this FRONTPAGE interview.
One evening this summer, I met T-Pain for virtual drinks to discuss his recipe book Can I Mix You a Drink? 50 Cocktails From My Life & Career. He sits in a gaming chair at his command station in the basement of his Atlanta home. Behind him lays a spacious stretch of hardwood floor bathed in the kind of pink and purple LED lights you might find on a Virgin Atlantic flight. I begin the call by proudly showing him my rendition of the simplest cocktail in his book — an English Breakfast tea with honey whiskey, served in a teacup and saucer. He peers at the tiny drink through the screen and lets out a large, incredulous belly laugh. “In that cup? Hey, as long as it’s big enough for you.”
For his part — T-Pain, who was born Faheem Najm and is somehow only 37 — has three beverages going: water, tequila, and a rapidly melting version of the “Five O’Clock,” a take on a root beer float from his book that features stout beer and ice cream. He is hungover, he explains, and getting back on the horse after staying up until 5 a.m. the previous night drinking and rating people’s music on Twitch. “I feel like shit right now,” he admits. “I’m about to fucking die. I was having fun [last night], and I’m going to try to get back where I was. But I might throw up before that. Who knows? Mystery of life.”
But for the duration of our call, T-Pain is nothing but peppy and jovial, displaying none of the soul-crushing pain, precarity, and wish for the sweet release of death one typically associates with hangovers; he talks about his hangover as though it were the funniest thing in the world.
No artist can touch T-Pain’s ability to express and embody alcohol’s way of dissolving the awkward tensions that tend to linger at bars and clubs. On his seminal 2007 album Epiphany, he sang of a miraculous potion that helped him sweep girls off their feet and take them on a magic carpet ride of love and sex. On “Tipsy,” interpreted generously, he offers a girl a drink to put her at ease. On “Bartender,” he falls in love with the woman serving drinks at the club. On the stone-cold classic “Buy U A Drank,” he distills the essence of his bar-going philosophy — “I'mma buy you a drank (ooo-weee…) / I'mma take you home with meee…” — and shoots his shot as the bar closes for the night. In each song, he lets his sweet, sticky Autotune melody do the talking as much as his whimsical and conversational style of songwriting.
With that in mind, it now feels inevitable that T-Pain would make a book of cocktail recipes. Can I Mix You a Drink? uses his catalog of music as the muse that inspires a series of novel cocktails; but just as importantly, it carries the whiff of memoir, using drinking as a lens for T-Pain to share his story and trace how his relationship with alcohol developed in parallel with his career. “I was Black Justin Bieber,” he said of his late ’00s heyday. “I had a ton of money. Drunk all the time and not a care in the world. And I was just fucking going crazy.”
The book is filled with lurid details from T-Pain’s drinking misadventures. It opens with a memory of the first time he got drunk, at the age of 15, and woke up on the bathroom floor of his dad’s house with vomit everywhere. He recounts the expansion of his drinking consciousness that occurred one fateful night in Dothan, Alabama, when he and his old group, the Nappy Headz, discovered champagne one night after a gig. “I’ve gotta admit, ever since I picked up a pen in one hand to write my first song, I had a beer in the other,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “Alcohol and music always went hand in hand for me. The more popular I became, the more the liquor flowed.”
Can I Mix You a Drink? is a vehicle not just for T-Pain’s story, but also for his fabulous voice and ability as a humorist. As his words flow on the page, it feels as though he’s talking out loud. He draws on decades of drinking experience to guide the reader to optimize their own relationship with alcohol. He name-checks Zima on his list of “The Best Bottom Shelf Liquor To Drink When You’re Broke Or Just Trying To Be Polite Around Broke People.” (“I didn't know it was made of ass, but it was one of my first drinks. I gotta shoutout Zima,” he tells me.) He shares unorthodox strip club etiquette, specifically describing his “flying sausage” technique of throwing bills: “Now that’s when you roll up some ones and you launch them at the dancer and then they explode into a beautiful bouquet of bills. You have to cap it at $14, though, or else it’s like you’re throwing a rock at her.”
To create the book, T-Pain recruited Maxwell Britten, a prominent, New York-based mixologist who, under his supervision, devised a drink to match the sentiment of 50 of his best-known songs. Mix You a Drink? subscribes to the appealing ethos that anyone can make high-quality cocktails if they set their mind to it; on some level, it argues that cocktails ought to be accessible, and it is animated in part by a pronounced high-low sensibility. Britten tells me that T-Pain gave him the latitude to explore and interpret his music catalog freely, but that he also supplied specific instructions, such as one drink involving a brown paper bag, another with a Solo cup, and a third with “components of blackness and orangeness.” The “I’m So Hood” invites the reader to create an Olde English reduction by boiling down malt liquor, cinnamon sticks, anise, cardamom, and sugar, then pouring it on a goblet, along with D’Usse and champagne, and encasing the goblet in a brown paper bag. The “Red Cup” garnishes a Solo cup filled with blueberry vodka and White Claw with sorbet and fresh berries. This high-low sensibility also manifests in the juxtaposition of carefully composed photographs of each drink — accompanied by thorough directions encompassing ingredients, garnish, vessel, methodology, and tools — with T-Pain’s genial banter. On one page stands an eloquent cocktail involving raspberry syrup; on the next, T-Pain warns of the perils of whiskey dick.
Before our interview, I hosted a panel of amateur drinkers at my apartment to put the cocktails of Mix You a Drink? to the test. Overall, the panel received the drinks well. The “Booty Werk” had the chalky texture and tang of Smarties and tasted like an orange creamsicle. The “I’m So Hood” was more popular; the panel determined that the Olde English reduction, which one panelist had prepared ahead of time and brought in a plastic canister, tasted like candy and was good enough to be sold on its own. The cocktail tasted like mulled cider, and the spices of the reduction masked the OE. The panel found that the brown paper bag, which obscured the contents of the drink, contributed significantly to the mystique and experience. (“To mask the shame… or heighten the pleasure.”) The darling of the panel was the “FBGM,” an herbaceous gin and tonic made from fennel gin. One panelist described it as a “fucking revelation.” “This is really fucking good,” remarked another.
In T-Pain’s youth, his older brother was a member of a car club called the Heavy Chevy Boys, which regularly met at their house because it had a studio. They called the house the Chevy Shack, a title that has graced every one of T-Pain’s studios since.
The current iteration of the Chevy Shack is located in the basement of T-Pain’s 22-thousand-square-foot home. In recent years, he has built out the basement as the headquarters for his fledgling media empire, Nappy Boy Entertainment. Down there, he has created an adult playground; there is a podcast setup, studio, lounge, salon, two game rooms, strip club, wine cellar, and an area for dogs. “I made it to the point where I don't have to leave for anything,” he says, sitting at one of his Twitch stations. It looked like he was at the helm of the Millennium Falcon.
T-Pain’s basement is a hub of activity — Amber, his wife of 18 years, will often make drinks at Chevy Shack functions. “She's certified, but she hasn't worked in a bar,” he said. “I just won't let her do it. I can't have my wife behind the bar getting hit on by old veterans.” T-Pain’s PR rep would end the Zoom call by announcing that Earthgang was outside, waiting to come in and record an episode for T-Pain’s podcast.
Since the pandemic started, T-Pain has been busy overseeing the expansion of Nappy Boy Entertainment, and specifically cosmetic improvements to his Twitch channel. “I was already an introvert,” he says. “I wasn't going anywhere anyways. I was kinda taking a break from music for a second anyway. So I wasn't really doing anything. College shows came to a halt. But [the pandemic] actually affected me positively. I came to be known as the gamer, because I've been playing games on Twitch since 2014. And people just now found out during the pandemic because they had time to actually sit and watch.”
T-Pain is an omnivorous gamer; on Twitch, he can be found yelling at the screen while playing first-person shooters like Warzone, warbling “Hot Cross Buns” to himself while jogging through open-world sandbox games, and crashing his virtual Audi into trees at high speeds in Forza Horizon. Earlier this year, he mowed down a team of racists in Black Ops who had uttered a stream of slurs in the lobby. "I want all of them!” T-Pain screamed. As he slaughtered the racist scum, his voice rose with each kill. "I want every single fucking one of them! I want it all, I want every part of it!! I want the whole thing!!!"
He is a certified Twitchhound, and he’s paid handsomely for it. In addition to his gaming, he regularly streams self-engineered recording sessions, and he is contractually obligated to listen to music submissions live on Twitch for 30 hours per month.
“I love this,” he says of his Twitch-centric lifestyle. “I mean, I could be on the road getting 70 grand a night, or I can fucking sit at home and get 30 grand an hour to play video games. I think I'll sit at home. I'm fine with that. I don't have to travel. I don’t have to worry about TSA.”
T-Pain insists that music is still his number one passion, and he remains an in-demand collaborator to the point that he has repeatedly pushed his album back to accommodate all the feature requests he’s accepted. But truly, he is too pure for the industry. His ubiquity in the late ’00s as the rap industry’s premier hook artist and the Godfather of Autotune made him one of the most hated people in pop music. In a recent Netflix documentary, he recalled a disturbing conversation with Usher on a flight to the 2013 BET Awards.
“I was awakened by the flight attendant,” he remembered. “She said, ‘Usher would like to talk to you in the back.’ He sounded real concerned. He was like, ‘Man, you kinda fucked up music.’ I didn’t understand. Usher was my friend. He was like, ‘Nah, man, you really fucked up music for real singers.’”
After the documentary came out, T-Pain tweeted in Usher’s defense, saying that the rude comment was “a drop in the ocean of shit I was already goin through.”
Today, generational nostalgia, the acceptance of Autotune as a legitimate instrument, and the recognition that T-Pain is a magnificent singer have helped make him a universally beloved figure. One of the more joyous musical spectacles in recent memory came in 2019, when he masqueraded as a friendly monster that looked like a cross between Mike Wazowzki and Sully from Monsters, Inc. and performed a scintillating series of covers, including Gavin DeGraw and Queen, on Fox’s The Masked Singer. He had the judges completely stumped (“Is that Tyrese?”), and ultimately stunned when it came time for the big reveal.
Demystifying the identity of the friendly monster with big pipes made for great television. Just as captivating are the mundane, semi-regular Twitch streams in which T-Pain sips on a beverage and spends hours layering rich Autotune harmonies in Pro Tools. Indeed, the Chevy Shack has evolved. The future of T-Pain is here. The basement dweller has found a way to share more of himself than ever. For the rest of us, that’s a good thing.
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