Radio Hits One: T-Pain Escapes Lead Single Purgatory

The Revolver cover.
On Thursday Jive Records announced that T-Pain's fourth album rEVOLVEr would be out on December 6. That same day, the rappa ternt sanga's single "5 O'Clock" reached a new Hot 100 peak of No. 25 . The timing wasn't exactly coincidental. The track, on which T-Pain is supported by Lily Allen and Wiz Khalifa, is the sixth single he's released in support of the album, and it has quickly become the most successful to date. But for over two years, he was lobbing one song after another into the marketplace, and each time it would quickly fall off the charts, and Jive would delay the album and start over from scratch.

The press release announcing the album calls "5 O'Clock" the second single from rEVOLVEr, designating "Best Love Song" featuring Chris Brown as the first. Truthfully, they're the sixth and fourth singles, respectively, but they're also the only top 40 hits from the campaign so far—which means everything else that missed will likely be tossed out, or only included as bonus tracks on certain editions of the album.

Not long ago, an album with half a dozen Hot 100 hits would be considered a runaway success. But the bar for singles-chart success to serve as a benchmark for potential album sales has been raised so high in recent years that rEVOLVEr has struggled for two years to find its way into stores, and other albums like it have as well.

In June, Sound of the City's Jayson Greene ran down an epic list of failed attempts at lead singles for Game's The R.E.D. Album. While that assortment of failed would-be hits was impressive, many of those songs were mere leaks, not given a proper single release or any radio airplay. In T-Pain's case, all six of rEVOLVEr singles were given the full push—they were worked at radio, made available for purchase on iTunes, and had money spent on slick official videos. And each one had at least some modest success before being quickly forgotten and disavowed when the next 'lead single' came along a few months later. Radio singles haven't been Game's strong suit for a while now, but for someone whose name is virtually synonymous with hitmaking hooks, failure to produce a smash was enough to keep T-Pain in release-date limbo for years.

On September 22nd, 2009, T-Pain first announced RevolveR (as the title was then stylized). It was to be released later that year, and preceded by the lead single "Take Your Shirt Off." After the track stalled at No. 80, it was followed in February 2010 by "Reverse Cowgirl," which didn't fare much better, peaking at No. 75. In June of that year, the pressure seemed to be getting to T-Pain; he went on a widely reported rant in which he claimed that his album was finished and mastered, but that he chose not to release it until music sales in general went back up. In 2011, album sales have risen for the first time in seven years, but by then he'd taken another tack, announcing on Twitter that he'd release the album when he reached a million followers on the social-networking service (he's currently got six hundred thousand).

In October 2010, T-Pain released my favorite RevolveR single to date, "Rap Song." It featured Rick Ross and had a great, eye-catching video, but peaked at only No. 89 for the project's least successful single to date. This year, he finally started to catch a break, with March's release of "Best Love Song" doing well on pop radio and peaking at No. 33 on the Hot 100. In July, he returned to his strip club-themed roots with "Booty Wurk (One Cheek At A Time)," which reached No. 44 with moderate urban radio airplay.

"5 O'Clock" is a runaway success by rEVOLVEr's modest standards, but it's not too impressive for a guy who appeared on over a dozen top 10 hits since debuting in 2005, five of which came from T-Pain's first three solo albums. In fact, only one of those hits, Pitbull's "Hey Baby (Drop It To The Floor)," has been released in the last two years. Jay-Z's 2009 single "D.O.A. (Death Of Autotune)" may not have accurately predicted the demise of the still-ubiquitous vocal effect, but the man who popularized AutoTune on pop radio has been struggling to get airplay ever since. Artists like DJ Khaled, Snoop Dogg, Nelly and Bun B have continued to enlist the hookman for singles, but that's not the ticket to a surefire hit that it once was.

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