2016 was T-Pain’s Twitch channel’s inaugural year, and it’s also the first time Pain remembers getting trolled. “At the time, my music career was kind of on a downward spiral,” he says during our Zoom call this Monday. “People were coming into my chat and telling me stuff like, ‘You’re only streaming because you don’t have any more music money.’ It wasn’t true, but it kind of hit home because I was thinking that same shit.”
T-Pain is now the CEO of Nappy Boy Gaming, a passionate piece of his 2006-founded media empire Nappy Boy Entertainment. He runs and selects the members of its stream team, which includes BigCheese and Granny. When NBG started, he wasn’t used to getting trolled. But he does have experience with backlash—you might remember some of it from when you knew him best, when he was the guy on the radio singing with Auto-Tune.
Born Faheem Najm in Tallahassee, Florida (his artist name means “Tallahassee Pain,” because he struggled while living there), T-Pain started making music as soon as his 10-year-old hands would let him. He was only 20 when his debut single “I’m Sprung,” certified platinum in 2006, came out. That song makes Pain’s voice glossy with extreme pitch-correction, and later hits like 2007’s “Bartender” and “Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” feature the same Auto-Tuned vocal cascades.
He was always committed to the art of it. He used to sample games like Streets of Rage 2 and GoldenEye 007 (he reminisces about working with the former back in “oh my God, 1998, this was way back,” he says, laughing). In using Auto-Tune, he never sounds robotic (“Kids today wouldn’t understand what it’s like to sing into a fan and try to sound like T-Pain,” says a YouTube comment with over 20 thousand upvotes), he sounds like T-Pain, pleasantly metallic, the sound you get from clinking together a couple of $400,000 diamond necklaces. It became a covetable sound, reproduced by other 2000’s club rulers like the Black Eyed Peas and Kesha, and even still by huge rappers and alt-pop stars, like Travis Scott, Lil Yachty, and Charli XCX.
But, in the beginning, Pain’s peers were unwilling to give him credit. Usher, at one point, told him that he fucked music up, and Jay-Z bitterly called for “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” with his 2009 song (“this shit violent / This is death of Auto-Tune, moment of silence”). The collective backlash led to a depressive period “that left [T-Pain] unmotivated to make any more music,” a New Yorker profile from 2014 says, but the fog lifted around that time, which happens to coincide with when Pain was first exposed to Twitch streaming at a PlayStation event in 2013.
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He became attached to “this feeling that I wasn’t alone,” and realized streaming was a social, gratifying alternative to gaming alone in his room, or being stuck on a plane or stage without another human being to connect with.
He tells me he “took the reins into [his] hands” in 2016, starting his own channel and eventually forming his own stream team because he felt like it.
“I saw Markiplier watching BigCheese,” T-Pain says, “and I immediately got this feeling that I need to create something where I can use my name and my platform to get this guy seen. I need to get more eyes on this guy. I was like, ‘I need to create a gaming organization.’”
“It was kind of on a whim,” he admits, but he sticks with it partially because he likes being on his stream team, too, and protecting the sense of wonder that video games give him.
It was difficult initially. It turned out that internet commenters inherited Jay-Z’s objections to T-Pain’s career.
“The negativity sticks out so much,” he says about receiving his first round of hate comments. “I was screaming in my house, and I was getting mad at my wife for nothing because these fucking assholes on Twitter talking shit. Telling everybody, ‘don’t talk to me today, this one guy on Twitch said I was a fucking has-been.’”
But he learned, as everyone online must learn, that the anonymous losers in your comments section can’t be trusted.
“This is when I was getting 200 viewers, like, that was my top, that was big for me. When a lot of those viewers were saying ‘you’re on the stream because you don’t have money anymore,’ [...] I started feeling like that. [...] But I realized that those were just terrible people.”
Once he came to conclusion that “fuck those guys. Nevermind. Back to our regularly scheduled program,” like he says, he committed to streaming and nourishing that wonder. He cites TimTheTatman, Moistcritikal (“that’s the fucking homie”), and virtual YouTuber CodeMiko (“there’s a whole $10,000 system sitting in my game room doing nothing because I found out [motion capture] was more instructions than I thought it was”) as streamers he’s a fan of. It’s obvious that he loves streaming as a discipline.
You can also tell from decades of interviews, podcast appearances, and music—I noticed it, too, during our call—that T-Pain loves laughing. He slips into booming ha ha ha!’s as cheerily as you wiggle off a sweater when you’re warm, which could be why he found so much success on Twitch, where he now has close to 900 thousand followers. He is palpably nice.
Tabloids and DeuxMoi have mostly trained us out of believing celebrities can be so nice, no strings attached, but T-Pain exudes undeniable charisma. He has so many interesting stories to tell, and I’m happy to sit and let time pass as I listen.
Like, in 2021, he told his viewers about meeting Prince’s bass player. He called him on the phone so that T-Pain and Prince could introduce themselves, but Prince instead shouted “where the fuck you been at, man, we’ve been trying to jam for an hour!” as soon as he picked up.
The bass player “said ‘hey man, I’m sorry about that, but, man, I got T-Pain right here.’ Prince said, ‘I don’t want to talk to no motherfucking T-Pain,’” T-Pain recalls, cackling so hard he needs to rip his headphones off for a second. It starts a chain reaction—everyone in the room is cracking up, and so is everyone watching at home. “I was like, ‘bro, it’s fine!’”
He talks to viewers like we’re all at the bar together; he doesn’t operate with the untouchability of someone who influenced two decades of popular music, though he’s willing to demystify that world for everyone. He does it a lot—he just streamed for six hours the other day, scrolling through YouTube and analyzing his music while chat asked him innocent questions, children talking to their teacher. “What’s your favorite music video?”
He’s willing to entertain in infinite ways, giving subscriber insider looks at how he makes music, playing Battlefield 1, Fortnite, racing games with a steering wheel controller, Call of Duty…whatever he can get his hands on, really. The NBG team is similarly eclectic, playing Red Dead Redemption in full grandma drag or, like Cardboard Cowboy, showing viewers hours of custom animations before finally deciding to play The Last of Us.
That impulse T-Pain had once, to support and amplify creators he admires, has proven to be long lasting. It continues to guide Nappy Boy Gaming. When it comes to adding new streamers to NBG’s roster, “I still look for people who would otherwise not be seen,” he says.
T-Pain likes streamers who seem like pure fun. Good people. “I scour Twitch, and I watch people, and if I stumble upon you and see you may need some help, or you got low views, and I feel like you deserve more…there you go. That’s how you get signed to Nappy Boy Gaming.”
“You don’t have to be really good at games [to get signed to NBG],” he continues. “You just got to be a good person that likes to make people laugh and lift people up. Just don’t be a dick.”
T-Pain has a genuine joy for streaming, but there are materials to be gained from it, too. He told famous jackass Steve-O on his podcast last year that he makes a lot of money on Twitch, and actually, “I’m making more money off of video games than I’ve made in the last four years,” he said. But he’s not sticking to Nappy Boy Gaming—continuously adding streamers to his roster, chatting for hours with subscribers—solely because he needs the money. Not to brag, but he’s good.
“This isn’t, like, my main thing. I have other ways of making money. It’s fine,” he says, though, if he did dedicate all his time to streaming, it would work out to something like $60,000 per hour, he claims, and that doesn’t hurt. But what might matter more to T-Pain is that NBG is helping him fulfill a long quest for overdue legitimization. He says that the NBG accomplishment he’s most proud of is getting recognized by the games industry at large.
“We just did an activation last night with Ubisoft. Just having Ubisoft not say, ‘We got T-Pain to play our game,’ they said, ‘We got Nappy Boy Gaming to play our game,’ you know, to be recognized as an organization and not just having people be like, ‘We’re cool now, we got a rapper to play our shit,’ [...] is the crowning achievement,” he says. “It’s not just somebody that we think is famous. It’s not just a celebrity endorsement. It’s Nappy Boy Gaming. That’s the crowning achievement for me, just having that thing be separate.”
Gaming has helped T-Pain, once spitefully shouldered out by his industry, reach an unconventional, but still triumphant, apex. That, in addition to using the fame he kindled anyway for a good cause, is enough for him.
“When I ultimately leave this earth, I want people to be able to say, ‘That was fun. That was a good goddamn dude, he helped a lot of people,” he says, his comfortable laugh rolling out again like spilled marbles.
“That’s really all I want. I don’t really have any other achievements, or anything like that, that I want. I want the people that I helped to feel the way that I feel.”