By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 4, 2007
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.
Oh, and he also wrote, produced and sang on Gwen Stefani's "The Sweet Escape," No. 4 on the latest chart.
It's Akon's world, and you're just humming along in it.
"There just aren't that many mass-appeal male pop stars," MTV's Baron says. "Justin's one of them, and Akon is another. It's Akon's moment right now. There's just something about him. He has a different sound, a different look, a different vibe. He's doing something nobody else is doing, blending pop melodies with hip-hop beats and adding Caribbean and African influences. It doesn't hurt that he's great-looking, very stylish and very likable. It's a magical combination."
Says Steve Rifkind, who signed Akon to his label, Street Records Corp., after hearing a demo recording: "No matter how bad the record business is right this second, people still want to hear great music."
So far, 1.6 million people have purchased "Konvicted," according to Nielsen SoundScan. The album is also a smash online, among illegal file swappers.
"There doesn't seem to be a saturation point with him yet," says Jon Caramanica, music editor at Vibe. The magazine will feature Akon on its April cover, along with a headline that calls him "The Last Hit-Maker."
Said hit-maker is in a blue mood today, wearing designer denim jeans, a blue polo shirt and a powder-blue Puma track jacket that matches his suede Puma sneakers. But there's also a brightness about him. Just look at his left wrist, which bears a gigantic, diamond-encrusted watch -- a Breitling that he's customized with roughly $20,000 worth of blinding stones.
He's also grinning and giggling. A lot. Because of his high voice (as it turns out, he speaks not unlike he sings -- only faster), it sounds as though he's been sucking on helium whenever he laughs.
It's all somewhat surprising given the glowering look he's wearing on the "Konvicted" cover, which was shot in a courtroom. There's a scowling side-profile mug shot inside the CD booklet as well. The photographs are not-quite-subtle references to Akon's criminal past: He says he was jailed in Georgia on charges that included grand theft auto. He sang about the experience in "Locked Up," the breakthrough hit from his 2004 debut, "Trouble."
But now? He seems . . . sweet. Kindly. Almost angelic. No need to act hard, he says, despite the references in "Konvicted" to a criminal lifestyle. "You would want to smile," Akon says. "Who wants to get out of that kind of life and then stay in it? That don't make sense. I'm blessed. I don't have nothing to prove to nobody. Whatever you expect of me from my past life, throw it out the window 'cause you're never going to see that person again."
That past cannot be summed up in tidy shorthand, nor can all the bullet points in Akon's biography be easily verified. Some of it sounds like the stuff of creation myth.
He was born Aliaune Thiam in St. Louis to Senegalese parents who wanted their children to become U.S. citizens. Akon, he says, is one of his middle names by birth. "You have to be careful what you name your kids," he says. "In Africa, they say that whatever name you give your kids, they'll take seven of those characteristics."
His father, jazz percussionist Mor Thiam, had come to the Midwest to work with Katherine Dunham, an American dance legend and former cultural adviser to the president of Senegal. Akon, the second-oldest of five children, born in April 1973, spent part of his childhood in Africa, returning to the United States when he was 7 to attend school in Jersey City.
"But every summer, we'd go back home to Senegal," he says, noting that he remains fluent in Wolof, the West African country's most widely spoken language. "After high school, it was our choice whether we wanted to live there or stay in the States. We all stayed here. There were more opportunities. It was really a no-brainer."
He says he began getting into trouble while he was in high school. His father was offered a job at Clark Atlanta University and his parents moved to Georgia, leaving the teenage Akon and his older brother in New Jersey. They had a house and a car to themselves -- and "too much freedom," Akon says. (His parents declined interview requests through their son's publicist, who said the singer "wants to keep his family out of the press.")
By Akon's account, he fell in with the wrong crowd and sold marijuana. "I just did it to get accepted. But it wasn't me." And he started chopping cars for $10,000 a pop. He got expelled and had to graduate in a different district. He moved to Atlanta for college, but dropped out after a year and resumed stealing and selling cars. Eventually he got arrested. One public record in Georgia indicates he was sentenced to three years of probation on an unspecified felony. Akon says he spent three years in custody and stood trial.
"I beat it," he says. "But all that time I spent locked up, it was a blessing for me. I felt like God was really looking out for me. I'm trying to figure out why I'm even in here. I had no reason. I was never that type of guy. I was always the coolest dude you're ever going to meet, I was brought up by a great family, I had a great future, what the [expletive] am I doing? I was trippin'. Every day, I'm crying, talking to God, saying: 'If you get me out this situation, I promise, I'm never getting back in it.' "
He turned to music -- which, after all, ran in the family.
He'd been making demo tapes since high school -- at first, performing note-for-note re-creations of hit songs, and then writing his own music.
In New Jersey, he met Wyclef Jean of the Fugees and had a minor role on the hip-hop group's best-selling 1996 album, "The Score." But it wasn't until 2004 that Akon finally found success on his own -- after "Locked Up" became a smash single, "Trouble" went platinum and everybody freaked out about that voice.
"It's so unique," says Lisa Ivery, program director for XM Satellite Radio's hip-hop and R&;B channel, the City. "If you went to West Africa, to Senegal, you might find some people who sound similar to him. But not here."
Says Akon: "I inherited that old African folkloric-singer type of voice and I've incorporated it into today's urban music. It sounds like something brand new. A lot of people think my voice is processed until they come to a live show and see me sing." (You can hear for yourself when he tours with Stefani this spring, including a May 17 date at Nissan Pavilion.)
It's noon now, and church bells are ringing near the hotel. Akon's handlers are hovering impatiently. Everybody wants a piece of him, and there's only so much pie to go around.
He's constantly being bombarded by requests to work with other artists: Michael Jackson, reggaeton kingpin Daddy Yankee, Atlanta rapper Young Jeezy, maybe even Elton John. He's a master collaborator-for-hire, producing, writing and singing the hooks on other people's records. Vibe's Caramanica calls it "vertical integration," modern music-biz style, and says the strategy will ensure Akon career longevity. "Maybe not in a conventional pop-star way, but he'll probably never want for work."
Most certainly not now.
"It's so crazy," Akon says, lounging poolside. "Everything's piling up on top of each other. We're just trying to organize all of it and get everything done."
He sighs for dramatic effect and lets loose one of those infectious, helium laughs. And then looks at his watch.
Staff researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.