T-Pain Proves He's No Joke at Comedy Central's Clusterfest

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T-Pain performs at Clusterfest on June 1 at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.  (Nastia Voynovskaya)

On its surface, "T-Pain performing at a comedy festival" might sound like a joke about the Auto-Tune king's long-fought reputation as an artist no one should take seriously.

But on Friday night at Comedy Central's Clusterfest, currently taking over San Francisco's Civic Center, T-Pain took a risk and came out on top, delivering an uncomplicated display of joy at a time when looking detached is fashionable and trolling is currency. And he left the audience beaming.

T-Pain moonwalked to "Blame It" and wound his hips to "Cyclone," dreads swinging and grills gleaming. He was silly and effusive, cracking up the crowd. And although he was surrounded by comedians, T-Pain—who was previously laughed out of hip-hop during a late-2000s backlash against Auto-Tune—proved that he's no joke. In fact, he brought the house down with impressive showmanship and musical skill at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

It wasn't without its initial hitches. T-Pain's set was originally scheduled for 5:30pm, a half-hour after festival doors opened—which seemed beneath him as someone with 12 Top 10 Billboard hits and two No. 1 singles. Most fans had yet to pass security at his original showtime. Clusterfest apparently heard the feedback loud and clear, and rescheduled his set for 11:30pm.

"'Since earlier today, I’ve been asking my wife, ‘People gonna come if I do it later?’" he joked with the audience. "I really didn’t think anybody would show up to this sh-t."


But show up they did—Bill Graham, which holds 8,500, looked nearly at capacity, even though T-Pain's set went into the late hours of overtime.

T-Pain seemed much more on top of his game than his 2017 acoustic concert in San Francisco, when he was late and not at his vocal best. Even though T-Pain was riding on a comeback arc following a viral NPR Tiny Desk Concert video that demonstrated his impressive vocal chops sans Auto-Tune, his show at the Independent fell flat.

But Friday night at Clusterfest, the self-proclaimed "rappa ternt sanga" seemed much more at ease now that he has nothing to prove. The Auto-Tune backlash has long faded. And a quick glance at the current Hot 100 reveals that detractors like Jay-Z (whose fans once shouted "f-ck T-Pain" at concerts) were on the wrong side of history, and that T-Pain is a pioneer of the digitized rap-singing that chart-toppers like Migos and Lil Yachty now practice.

Despite previous ridicule, T-Pain didn't just seem like he was in on the joke at Clusterfest: he seemed above the joke, working his sense of humor to elevate his set above simple nostalgia.

His performance was impressively taut, and he fit the majority of his big hits into 35 minutes while managing to get in plenty of jokes and even some multimedia, starting his set with a documentary-style selfie cam video about his set-time debacle. As he performed sweet-talking hits like "Buy U a Drank" and "Can't Believe It," he seemed genuinely joyous, hamming it up while showing off fancy footwork.

The millennial audience, most of whom were in high school when T-Pain reigned the Billboard charts, gleefully screamed along to the lyrics. Large 3D-graphics of well-endowed dancers and lowriders bathed T-Pain in a Miami Vice glow of teals, aquas and pinks. He also often went off script with soulful vocal runs, dazzling the crowd.

On Friday night, with dancing, singing and comedy, T-Pain proved to be a classic triple threat of entertainment.