By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Sep 03, 2021 at 8:46 AM Photography: Ty Helbach

Let's make this clear: I was totally prepared to love T-Pain's Summerfest set on Thursday night. Not only is he seemingly one of the industry's most affable and less pretentious personas, but he also earned a freshly reassessed appreciation from music lovers thanks to a viral interview from Netflix's docu-series "This Is Pop," opening up about how he fell into a depression after Usher told him that "he f*cked up music" thanks to his use of Auto-Tune. (Bold words from the guy who helped give the world Justin Bieber.)

With all of that – plus the inherent good vibes of being back at Summerfest for the first time in more than two years floating in the lakefront air – I was ready to have a memorable blast with T-Pain at the UScellular Connection Stage. And Thursday night was indeed memorable, though more so because I left utterly baffled by one of the more peculiar live shows I've ever seen – a short, scatterbrained and occasionally surreal evening that would've bordered on straight-up bad if the performer and the pieces weren't so gosh darn personable (and if, after a year away from live music, the bar wasn't so generously low). 


Making his second on-stage appearance since The Before Times, the rapper and producer seemed eager to make up for lost time. Maybe too eager, though, with a rapidfire setlist blazing through his catalogue of hits and collaborations – from "Booty Wurk" to "Buy U a Drank," to "Bartender" and "All I Do Is Win" – in record time, playing each song for maybe a minute each before quickly moving on to the next. The energy was somewhere between a dance-happy DJ club set and somebody skipping around radio stations, making it hard for the night to get into a real rhythm. 

The hits, however sporadic, were good and relentlessly delivered, while T-Pain got the crowd – maybe about half-filled at its peak, which was solid for the overall subdued Summerfest attendance on Thursday – going with an assortment of nimble dance moves on stage, bouncing and body-rolling and popping-and-locking and sometimes even rapping and singing, though normally just over the original tracks. Ever the producer, he also tried getting the crowd to participate in some elaborate call-and-response games, appearing to work with his DJ on his various plans of attack, to visibly mixed success. (We're sorry; we're rusty!) What was more successful: "Can't Believe It," which came with a "Wiscansin" reference in the lyrics, as well as a logo for the fake university beaming on the stage's screen behind the rapper, that got the young crowd fired up. 

At one point, however, you could see T-Pain check his watch. Maybe it was tied to a lyric – but then later in the set, he appeared to check his watch again. The occasional breaks got longer as well, poorly synced up with the video screen so there was long empty pauses of darkness while T-Pain disappeared near the back of the stage to recuperate. By the end of the night, he admitted during a final pause that he was "tired as hell" while his DJ and the crowd tried to encourage him back to life. Thankfully, his DJ had a song with the right combination of "hype as f*ck but also chill as f*ck" to bring the rapper out of hiding – but either this was a very committed bit or T-Pain was legitimately exhausted. And fair enough – it is only his second show in more than a year's time. 

However, after a run of mega-hits including "Bartender," "Low" and "All I Do Is Win," T-Pain thanked the crowd and welcomed them back to the outside world before performing "I Like Dat" and calling it a night, clocking in at barely over an hour. It was a surprisingly quick curtain – including seemingly for T-Pain who, after a significant pause that lost a not-insubstantial amount of audience members, came back on stage because "they told me that wasn't enough." Again: Was this another ill-advised bit? He still had a few hits left – including his feature on Lonely Island's "I'm On a Boat" – complete with production value to make it seem like a planned encore, after all. At the same time, he appeared to have to figure out his next tracks with his DJ – and then there's the whole "saying out loud that he was told he needed to play more" thing.

No matter the case, even with the awkward "encore," the show still wrapped up barely cracking the 75-minute mark.

PHOTO: Dan Garcia

It was a peculiar end to a frankly peculiar show, one that flipped wildly in tone between self-depreciating and self-aggrandizing. Half of the video packages were hilarious faux documentary clips – complete with narration from a fake Morgan Freeman – charting T-Pain's successes and "successes," including the achievement of creating songs at home at both kids birthday parties and strip clubs. The other half, however, were just clips of fellow celebrities thanking him at awards shows and praising him, as though T-Pain wanted to remind the audience to take him seriously too.

Take the bizarre tangent into a tribute to "The. Masked Singer." Yes, there was an extended homage to T-Pain's historic success on "The Masked Singer," winning the world's most hallucinatory TV show disguised as what appeared to be a one-eyed moldy chicken nugget gone sentient. The intro video made (what seemed like) a joke about this triumph ... but cut to 30 minutes later, he dove into an earnest run of covers from the Fox reality competition ("Don't Stop Me Now," "I Don't Wanna Be," "American Woman") showing off his unaltered singing voice – an admittedly pretty impressive one at that, hitting some soulful runs and unexpected notes. What started as a gag became an oddly sincere victory lap ... with the backdrop of a furry one-eyed gremlin monster fueled by top 40 songs and Jenny McCarthy shrieks.

The whole bit played like a strange hunt for esteem – esteem he's certainly well earned (though maybe not via the most loudly bonkers parody of a singing competition TV has to offer). For all of the scoffing at Auto-Tune, grumblings from Usher and easy punchlines, T-Pain is inarguably one of the biggest influences in pop and hip-hop this young century, with a pair of Grammys, several nominations and a stack of hits, as performer and producer, to prove it.

He undoubtedly deserves respect – more so than pop culture and, as Usher showed, his own industry have given him. Just maybe not for Thursday night's discombobulated and disappointingly truncated performance.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.