By Luke Winkie
The calculus for T-Pain was simple. He plays a lot of video games; it’s his primary hobby both at home and in the studio — he famously keeps a juiced laptop on hand at every recording session — so the idea of actually making money from behind an Xbox was kismet. All he needed was someone to open the door. Then, in 2014, as T-Pain’s manager watched his client spend another night on the road mired in twilight deathmatches, he introduced him to Twitch, a rapidly growing live-streaming platform that Amazon had just purchased for $970 million.
“My manager was like, do you know you can do this?” says T-Pain, over the phone with MTV News. “So my manager made a few phone calls, [a couple streamers] came to my hotel room, and they showed me how to get on Twitch. I played Doom online, and I [fell in love with it] immediately.”
It was everything he ever wanted, in a way he never knew how to articulate before. “When I’m gaming, and I do some cool shit, [I’ll] come up to my wife, she’ll be like, ‘What’s wrong?’ I’m like, ‘I just did some cool shit and nobody is going to see it!’” he says. “Nobody was in the room with me! I’m so pissed off!” T-Pain was used to having an audience at Summer Jam every year; now he could take those people home to his springy black computer chair and show them his other major talent. As a fan, you watched gobsmacked as the man who wrote “Bartender” proved, in no uncertain terms, that he also had a decent Genji.
As of this writing, T-Pain has logged nearly 100 hours streaming on Twitch, accumulating over 100,000 total followers along the way. He’s moved past Doom and now plays everything from uber-competitive esports-quality shooters like Overwatch, computer-lab classics like The Sims, and intelligentsia-only indie movers-and-shakers like Risk of Rain 2. It’s all part of a serendipitous second act for the artist. Fifteen years after breaking through as an Auto-Tune-soaked hook guy — responsible for both a brief culture war in hip-hop and a body of work that shadows over everyone from Future to Kanye West — T-Pain has made himself into a bona fide “gamer celebrity.” It was evident up close earlier this year at E3, a yearly trade show that serves as a joint news conference and consumer mecca for anyone interested in the industry. At Ubisoft’s press event, attendees witnessed T-Pain holding court with a cadre of Rainbow Six pros, solidifying his place alongside the Kool Aid-dyed twenty-somethings like Ninja that give Twitch its texture. At a time when the music industry is more amorphous and tenuous than ever, T-Pain has found a way to connect with a new fanbase, even as he continues to put out new music. (He released his latest album, 1UP, in February.)
The most bewildering part is how this 33-year-old has developed a native understanding of the culture. T-Pain looks like everyone else on Twitch when he’s live: a ravioli-sized portal at the bottom corner of the screen points at his face, while a direct link to the gameplay takes up the rest of the display. T-Pain is natural and affable as he’s always been in his music, and if you watch his stream, you’ll see that he’s learned the tried-and-true fundamentals necessary for anyone to cultivate an effective Twitch career. He knows when to read and interact with his chat. He knows what games work as spectator sports, and what games don’t. He knows to never get baited by the trolls. T-Pain says he’s just doing what comes naturally, that his Twitch persona is just himself turned up to 11; he’s enjoying another victory in spare moments between his other obligations. “[People] are always giving me pointers on how to stream, but for the most part, this is just how I am when I game,” says T-Pain. “It’s just me.”
There was a time when T-Pain was one of the very few famous people on Twitch, but that isn’t the case anymore. Last year, it was reported that more than a million people are tuned into the platform at any given time, so inevitably, other crossover artists have started to sniff around his turf. Deadmau5 has had his own controversial run on the platform, and there was that legendary night last year when Drake, Ninja, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Travis Scott briefly derailed all of social media as they spent an evening playing Fortnite together. But T-Pain takes pride in both being one of the first artists to migrate his talents to the gaming-as-entertainment ecosystem, and also being the only one to take it seriously as an ongoing concern. “I get people saying, ‘Oh, you’re only on Twitch because Drake was on Twitch,” he quips. “It’s like, no, I was on Twitch for four years before Drake was on Twitch!”
It’s become a fixture of his business interests. As of 2019, T-Pain is represented by the Online Performers Group, a talent management company that hosts a rolodex of traditional Twitch and YouTube stars who came up through gaming, rather than music. There is perhaps no better way to sum up the definition of celebrity in 2019 than by considering how a guy like T-Pain shares representation with Angry Joe. That accidental synergy has brought him a whole new universe of fans: the people who were either unfamiliar with T-Pain’s music, or simply didn’t like T-Pain’s music. All of them have had the chance of a reintroduction to the man through the common ground of video games, which eliminates any genre or generational barriers at the source.
“I’ve got a whole different audience now. I’ve got people on Twitter everyday saying, ‘I didn’t know you played games! I don’t really like your music, but you’ve got a fan in me,'” he says. “People that don’t have an interest in my music, or have a preconceived notion of me because of the music they do, they get to see me just living my life on Twitch, and they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s not an asshole!’ That’s pretty cool.”
Nobody was more prepared for a pivot like this than T-Pain. Consider the many different lives throughout the 15 years he’s been active in the music industry: Florida hardhead, ubiquitous guest-verse maestro, Lonely Island-bred meme, prolific record label executive, legendary Tiny Desk Concert performer. A turn as a Twitch streamer is just another chapter for an artist who learned a long time ago the importance of staying curious and proactive. T-Pain will always be a gamer at heart; it’s what makes his streams spirited and authentic, and distinctly not depressing in the way that the many embarrassing pop-culture crossover attempts this industry has seen in the past. But he’s never lost sight of a fundamental truth: In 2019, stars need to diversify their portfolio to stay relevant. Sometimes, all that takes is a quick game of Doom.
“We have more access to the behind-the-scenes, it’s like how artists coming up now are refusing to sign record deals because of the years and years of artists complaining about how record labels work. When people see that there’s money to be made on Twitch, more artists are going to Twitch,” he finishes. “We’re asking, ‘OK, what can I do outside of rap.’ Because people that are diversifying are getting celebrated. You don’t even have to be doing it well, as long as you’re doing something, people are going to be like, ‘Oh man, he’s so smart! He’s putting money everywhere!’ It’s a great argument in the barbershop. With a lot of diverse fans, people are going to bring in revenue from many different streams, and many different walks of life. Liking weird shit is what makes you different.”