Lord of the Ring Tone, And More

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 4, 2007

LOS ANGELES

Akon, Akon, Akon! He's everywhere, that distinctive, otherworldly voice of his spilling out of countless cars and nightclubs and house parties near you. The Senegalese American R&;B singer has three songs in crushingly heavy rotation across the radio airwaves, and he's become ubiquitous on TV -- even starring in a spanking new Verizon Wireless spot, which makes sense when you consider that he's sold nearly 4 million somewhat ribald ring tones since September, making him the new booty-call king.

So pervasive, this Akon. So salacious, too, on songs such as "Smack That." (Yes, that.)

And so . . . busy. When he turns up in the lobby of the W Hotel in Westwood, well past the appointed hour, he apologizes, blaming the delay on the demands of heading up a burgeoning business empire, which includes a clothing line, three record labels and a diamond wholesaler. It's no longer enough to be a mere pop star, so Akon is becoming a brand. He's also working on a foundation to build schools and hospitals in Africa. There are myriad promotional responsibilities as well.

"When they have me, they cram so much stuff into so little time," he says of his business associates and music-industry minders. "There's only so much one man can do. I'm so busy, my head hurts just thinking about it." He yawns. "But it's really a blessing to have everything happening."

Akon has just returned from a publicity push through Europe, where, he says, "it was freezing." So he decides to sit by the pool, under the midday sun. He unfolds on a canvas sofa, and he closes his eyes, basking. Apropos.

The 33-year-old singer is one of the music industry's hottest properties, a hip-hop star with street credibility, major crossover appeal and a strange, silky voice that sounds sort of artificial and slippery yet somehow warm, like a friendly ghost in the machine. It's memorable and wholly mysterious. Is it au naturel? (There are doubters.) Digital trickery? (No, he says.)

Whatever. Akon's latest album, "Konvicted," arrived in mid-November sans the hype blizzard that typically swirls around a major release, and yet it's managed to outsell most of the more famous entries in the crowded holiday-season field -- the Jay-Zs, the John Legends, the Diddys, the Ciaras. Surprise, surprise.

Akon shrugs: "If you make hot music, your record is going to do what it do." Not necessarily. Rap and R&B sales have tumbled by more than 25 percent over the past two years, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and it's becoming increasingly rare for urban albums to achieve sustained success. Yet "Konvicted" is emerging as a potential blockbuster, a fixture in the Top 10 that doesn't appear to be in danger of disappearing anytime soon.

"We could play him all year long," says Peter Baron, vice president of label relations, music and talent for MTV Networks. Baron says there are two, maybe three more big hits on "Konvicted," which has already produced three Top 5 singles.

"Smack That," a dirty duet with Eminem, went to No. 1 and earned a Grammy nomination for best rap/sung collaboration. (It got spanked in the voting by the Justin Timberlake-T.I. duet "My Love.")

Then came "I Wanna Love You," a lascivious song about the hot pursuit of winding, grinding pole dancers. Featuring an unprintable alternate title and a guest turn from rapper Snoop Dogg, the track reached No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100. And now comes Akon's latest hit: the tender if defiant love song, "Don't Matter," which currently sits at No. 2.


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