But to get there, T-Pain needed a little help from his friends.
And early on, those friends included the people at hip-hop station U92 in Salt Lake City.
U92 "helped break T-Pain," according to Beata Czechowski, director of promotions at Jive Records of the Zomba Label Group, T-Pain's record label.
Ratings-wise, KUUU-FM (U92) is the No. 11 radio station in Salt Lake City, but its national influence is growing. Now, the station is making a reality show about what goes on behind its own microphones, hoping the show will be picked up by a network somewhere. (Read more by http://www.sltrib.com/features/ci_8263211">clicking here).
Salt Lake is now the nation's 31st biggest radio market and, as the first and only true hip-hop station in Utah, U92 is a player. What it airs today, some observers say, is what will top the charts in coming months - and will be on the ringtones of teens at the mall.
"They break a lot of hip-hop," said John McMann, senior vice president of pop and rhythm promotion at Atlantic Records. "Salt Lake isn't the first place you think of when you think of hip-hop, but surprisingly, they are on the cusp."
In 2007, U92 was the first in the nation to play Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's "I Tried," even before the record label officially released it, Hecht said. The song eventually landed in the top 10 on the Billboard singles chart and resurrected the band's career: Its album "Strength & Loyalty" debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard album charts.
The success isn't limited to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, who play Saltair later this month.
McMann said U92 was among the first stations to play Plies and Flo Rida (who now has the No. 1 song on the Billboard singles charts).
Joe Hecht, a promoter who works for the TVT label and deals frequently with U92, said the station's programmers are free to pick and choose what they think their listeners will like. That's because the station isn't a corporation like Clear Channel that is beholden to stockholders and thus more likely to play it safe.
U92 program director Brian Michel agrees.
"People in San Antonio aren't telling us what to play," he said. "We have no outside consultants. We interact with [our listeners]."
"They're leaders, and they don't like to follow," said Czechowski. "They couldn't care less if no else is playing it. They champion records."
U92 has consistently been a top-five station among the coveted 18-to-34 demographic in the past five years. In the most recent Arbitron ratings, top-rated KSL had an 8.4 percent overall share. KUUU had a 3.0 share, which means 140,200 people tuned into the station in the course of a week. The share is the percentage of those listening to radio who are tuned to a particular station.
It's not surprising, Michel said, that U92 is able to grab a relatively large share of young listeners. Young people are generally the audience for hip-hop and rap, he said, and Utah has the lowest average age in the nation. In addition, many Utahns tend to get married and settle down in their early 20s, he said, so advertisers like home-builders are willing to buy commercial time on U92.
In its most recent issue, radio trade publication FMQB (Friday Morning Quarterback) called U92 "one of the country's leading hip-hop stations" and "a real player in the hip-hop world, breaking some of today's biggest records before they hit the mainstream."
"We're ahead of the curve most of the time," said afternoon DJ and music director Kevin Cruise, who is helming the reality-TV show project. "That's what I love about this station. We surprise people."