By Miles Raymer
August 05, 2014 at 08:51 PM EDT

All the way back in 2008, just three years after T-Pain’s Rapper Ternt Sanga made him into a radio-dominating superstar, you could see the writing on the wall for the rapper. No one could see it clearer than T-Pain himself: His trademark Auto-Tuned vocals went from a bracingly futuristic sonic innovation to an overused cliché in a matter of months. (He at least got a couple of good jokes about it into his “Karaoke” video.) When his sonically and thematically scattered 2011 album Revolver failed to turn things around, it seemed like his career might be coming to an end.

The pride of Tallahassee, Fla., spent his time since then refocusing and rebuilding his brand. Late last year he released a DJ Mustard-produced single, “Up Down (Do This All Day)” that quietly climbed nearly halfway up the Hot 100, and a video for the song that featured him sans dreadlocks and top hat, which had defined much of his visual identity. (He kept the outlandish sunglasses.) Over the past few months, T-Pain has been releasing more of the songs that he’s recorded since Revolver—there are hundredsincluding a couple, “Look Like Him” and “Monotone,” that combine the darkly throbbing synthesizer sounds that have been bubbling up out of the underground club scene. They feature bracingly self-critical lyrics, revealing that the guy who made warbling robot voices into a radio-devouring phenomenon hasn’t stopped innovating.

His latest single, “Drankin’ Patna,” is a return to the joyful hedonism and bouncing strip club beats of his early hits, and it serves as a potent reminder of exactly what the pop world was missing during his time away. In the midst of his Drankin’ Patna tour, and somewhere in the process of finishing up his fifth solo album, tentatively entitled Stoicville: The Phoenix, he spoke to EW about where he’s been and where he’s going.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: After a long stretch of not releasing music, you’ve been very busy recently. What inspired you to put this new stuff out, and how’s it going for you?

T-PAIN: First, it’s going great. I don’t think anything really inspired me to do it. I think, you know, people were missing my music. It was kind of a “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone kind of thing,” and people felt like I had been replaced or they’d been told what to like. You know how sometimes it’s uncool to like a certain kind of music, so you automatically don’t like it even though you love it when you’re by yourself? [Laughs] So I think it was cool to not like T-Pain at the time, but once people figured out, “Oh my god, I don’t like this thing people are telling me is cool,” man, people started asking for what they love again. I just saw a lot of people like, “Oh my god, please come back, this music is terrible.” [Laughs]

Do you think that you were a victim of your own success? Because you were everywhere for a minute.

Yeah, I think I was, man. It started driving me crazy. It started becoming a hindrance on my health, my mind state, it was just terrible. It was getting to me. But it all worked out. I wouldn’t do anything different.

When you were taking a break, were you still making music for yourself?

Yeah. I don’t think I was making the music that I was supposed to, you know what I’m saying? It was just kind of making music because I had to make music because I don’t know how to do anything else. Like, I feel like I should be doing something right now but I don’t know. I just kind of blabbed out whatever came out of my damn mouth in the booth, and it just wasn’t right.

Do you feel like that’s freed you up creatively?

I think I’m just happier. Once you get in that depressive state I was in… I basically just had to get happy, man. I had to free up some space in my mind and get rid of some things that were holding me back and get rid of the things that were putting me in that state of mind. Once I did that, man, I’m the happiest person in the world—the music’s happier, party music started happening, and there it is. It kind of just came together.

You’ve got “Up Down” out and that sounds like classic T-Pain.

Yeah, I wanted to be an artist, an artiste, just “I can make any kind of music,” and now I’m getting back to what I know and what made me. Everybody goes through that every now and then. But I feel like I got out of it, I came back, and it was so easy. It got boring, what I used to do, because it was so easy to do and it just wasn’t a challenge anymore, so I was trying to do extra complicated music and I started venturing off and it just got to be too much. I felt like I needed to get back to what I was doing, the same thing that made me all this money, just get back to it.

I saw in a recent Fader interview…

[Indistinct talking.] Sorry, I’m taking a picture with some fans.

That’s cool.

Good god, man.

Where are you right now?

Stuck on the side of the road. Flat tire. These guys just helped us change the tire, which was pretty cool. Where were we?

I read a Fader interview where you were talking about FKA Twigs, and I was wondering who else you’ve been listening to recently.

I’ve been getting into pretty much everyone on the Young Turks label. Ever since I found Twigs I’ve been checking out her label mates. That label is outstanding. I’ve been checking out their stations on Pandora and iTunes Radio. I’ve been getting into so much random stuff. I put it on “discovery,” and instead of listening to all the hits in a genre I just listen to the brand new people, the underground. It’s going pretty good so far.

When I heard “Look Like Him” it felt to me like it was the same kind of approach that Twigs is doing, that kind of dark electronic sound. It was cool for me to hear you pushing those boundaries, but it also occurred to me that even in your old stuff, the way you were using Auto-Tune was crazy experimental.

[Laughs] yeah. I took a shot in the dark with all of it. I felt like it worked out, but it was definitely scary. I thought I was going to be a quick one-hitter and I’d be out of there, but it worked out crazy. I wasn’t even gonna be an artist. I was signed to Konvict as a writer and I was writing songs for Akon but all of my songs were about girls, and at the time Akon was trying to do his whole gangster thug thing, and he was like, “I don’t do songs about girls,” so I’m like, “Well, okay, how about I go play this for someone at the club?” The first song he rejected from me was “I’m Sprung,” and I went and played it at the club. Right after that I got signed to a major label. That was strange.

Now that you’ve been around for a while, do you see yourself as an influence on younger artists? Besides the Auto-Tune thing, obviously.

Um, I don’t know. I can’t say now. We were just talking ’bout this in our broken down truck. I don’t think anybody feels the need to be a T-Pain or anything close to it because it’s so easy to do just any kind of music right now. I mean, listen to the music that’s really hot right now. You can barely understand what these motherf—ers are saying. Somebody told French Montana that he was wack, and his response was, “Every lyricist and every great rapper that I know, they’re broke. So I don’t have to be good.” And I was like, “Goddamn it,” but it’s so true! I don’t understand it. Maybe I’m getting old. Or the kids are wrong. The damn kids on my lawn.

Tell me about the new album you’re working on.

The thing with this album, man, I’m not really working on an album. I’m just making songs as they come. A lot of people don’t know where I’m going with it; I don’t even f—ing know where I’m going with it. I’m over 120 songs in for this album I’m supposed to be working on, so I guess I’m going to just leave it up to everybody else and let everybody pick out of that. You pick 18 songs out of that and I guess we got an album. I’m just doing music right now, whatever feels good, you know what I’m saying? Because I’m just trying to keep in my happy state and stay in my state of mind that made me who I am. I’m just kind of winging it, really.