Who the Hell is Flo Rida?

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He has a song on his MySpace called "Ghetto Techno." It sounds sort of like ghetto techno.

Flo Rida's "Low" is a perfectly acceptable bit of nondescript club-rap with a typically histrionic chorus from omnipresent horny robot T-Pain. In a lot of ways, it's a nice little distillation of a lot of the trends happening in rap right now: voice-filter overload, synthetic up-tempo ringtone-ready beats, faux-epic Euroclub keyboards, lyrics about butts, T-Pain. Still, I was a little shocked earlier this week when I checked the iTunes sales charts and saw that the song had debuted at #1. In the past few days, more than a hundred thousand people paid to download the song, and it catapulted itself into Billboard's top ten singles even though radio program directors are just now scrambling to get the song into their playlists. Before the song's big iTunes debut, I knew basically nothing about Flo Rida beyond his song "Birthday," another club-rap single with a synth-riff that moved it uncomfortably close to glassy, emotive trance. (I guess I also knew that he has a vaguely stupid-clever name. Flo Rida is from Florida and he rides flows, see?) "Birthday" found its way to a few mp3 blogs and scraped the lower end of Billboard's R&B charts, which seems about right. But "Low" is practically the same song, except with T-Pain doing the chorus instead of Rick Ross (a tremendous improvement, admittedly), and now all of a sudden it's huge. Judging by those two tracks, Flo Rida is a decent enough technical rapper who knows how to ornament a beat without getting in its way, but he shows basically zero personality on both tracks, and I'm not sure I could pick him out of a lineup. I hadn't even heard "Low" before its massive iTunes debut. So how does this happen? How does an indistinct, relatively unknown rapper suddenly end up with the best-selling song in the country?

The simple answer is T-Pain, whose pop-charts dominance is getting scary. When people look back on 2007's singles charts, the back half of the year will look like it belongs to T-Pain as completely as 1963 looks like it belongs to Phil Spector. On this week's Billboard Hot 100 top ten, T-Pain appears on no less than four songs, none of which are his. And it makes sense: T-Pain does have a way with simple and undeniably sticky melodies; just try, for instance, to get "Cyclone" out of your head after hearing it once. His modulated robo-squeak is one of the few immediately identifiable sounds in contemporary pop, and it fits beautifully with the glistening dance-pop textures that have been taking over club-rap lately. As a producer, he knows how to internalize and re-channel just about everything that works; his track for "Low" makes room for Lil Jon synth-whistles, jittery Miami bass stomp-claps, and high-gloss late-Timbaland synth-presents. In videos, he dances funny. Everything he does sounds efficient and streamlined; he's taken the messy aesthetic leaps that others have made and turned them into something easy to process. Pop history is full of guys like that. And T-Pain seems custom-created for a moment in rap when the genre's more danceable end has never been more European. The clangor that came with crunk's circa-2003 wave of popularity is all but gone, replaced with a sort of precision-engineered laser-lit superclub glide. T-Pain understands this stuff better than anyone else, and I wouldn't be shocked to discover that he was really from Germany or that he was an original member of Black Box or something. If there's anyone who can take an unremarkable rapper and hand him a pop hit at this exact moment, it's this guy.

To my ears, "Low" sounds like Southern club-rap with every last sliver of regional eccentricity carefully bleached out. But maybe that's an unnecessarily harsh judgment. Both Flo Rida and T-Pain come from Florida, after all, and one of T-Pain's other big current hits is "I'm So Hood," a decent-enough Florida-pride posse cut from DJ Khaled (though it's a bit disingenuous when T-Pain sings that he doesn't dance when he's in this place; anyone who's ever seen that guy on TV knows that he clearly does dance when he's in this place.) And so maybe "Low" represents the mainstream breakthrough of some sound that's been bubbling in clubs for a while. I'm going to Florida tomorrow to do story on Lil Boosie for King (seriously), and I'm looking forward to finding out firsthand how this stuff sounds in clubs down there.


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