Fresh Air

R&B newcomer Akon builds his audience with quality music and little fanfare

Every week I get several phone calls from publicists eager to promote some hot new artist or band in the hopes that I'll write about them. They usually try to pitch me by trumpeting the client's achievements -- an appearance on Mun2's The Roof, perhaps, or a couple of spins on a local radio station -- as proof of their impending takeover of the pop world.

I'm not afraid to admit that I forget about most of these tips as soon as I hear them, no matter how annoying or persistent the publicists become. But this past April I got a call about an emerging R&B singer from New Jersey, Akon, who had recently been signed to SRC/Universal (which is also home to David Banner). Akon was on a radio promo tour and was going to be in Miami in a few days, the publicist told me; did I want to interview him?

I don't know why I agreed to it, since I can be notoriously hesitant and lazy when it comes to meeting with artists. I've slept through more than my fair share of golden opportunities, from interviews with Lumidee (who went on to have a novelty pop hit last year with "Never Leave You") to Pitbull (whom I eventually caught up with this spring).

But when I listened to his album, Trouble, and its opening track, "Locked Up," I was glad I agreed to meet with him. The song is a lament that chronicles the loneliness and despair inmates often feel. "Everybody's forgotten about me," Akon sings in a voice reminiscent of R&B singer Joe. "Can't wait to get out and move forward with my life." The lyrics were a surprise; it is not often that I hear radio pop songs about life in jail.

When I met up with Akon at the Kent Hotel in Miami Beach, he had just wrapped up a day full of meetings with DJs and interviews with other journalists. Later that night, he planned to take a few of them out on the Beach. "Party with the DJs, free drinks on me, you know what I mean? VIP, whatever you want. It's all a part of butterin' them up," he said, smiling. The process seemingly has little to do with music, but he explained that it helps the people who he hopes will play his record get better acquainted with him. "That's the process of breaking the record," he said.

Trouble, Akon explained, is full of autobiographical stories. A Senegalese African born in St. Louis, Missouri, who spent time in Coral Gables as a teen, Akon moved to New Jersey and got caught up in street life. While there he was arrested and convicted for being, in his words, "the ringleader of a car theft operation, like [the movie] Gone in 60 Seconds," and sentenced to ten years in prison.

It was while he was incarcerated that Akon, who declines to give his age, began writing songs about his experiences. After serving three years, he was released when he appealed his sentence and won. He tried to start a company, Upfront Entertainment. But his conviction made it difficult for him to get the business off the ground. "When you're convicted of a felony, you really can't get no decent job," he said. "The little money I had, I tried to open up a club, but because I was a convicted felon they wouldn't give me a liquor license."

Meanwhile Akon was "making music as a diary," recording his life in his home studio. "I didn't plan on being no artist," he said. "I'd go through something, and then I'd go and record it. Instead of wilding out, I'd go in the studio and just sit and rap or sing or do whatever I gotta do just to [get the feelings] out. Then I'd put them records aside. Whenever I'd be driving in the car, I'd just listen to it.

"I don't listen to the radio that much," he continued. "There wasn't too much on the radio that I really like. So I would just go and make something that I feel like Iwould want to hear, do it myself, and just play it."

Akon's cousin, Devyne Stephens, heard the tracks and began shopping them to record labels before SRC picked them up. But Akon said the label didn't commission any outside producers to rework the songs, which he had recorded completely on his own. Indeed Troublefeels as if it were made in somebody's bedroom. The album is uneven, some of the material is weak, and Akon's performances aren't always on point. But at his best, from "Locked Up" to the sweet, guitar-inflected "Don't Let Up," he conveys an honesty and charm that most urban music, with all its glittery ProTools-generated bells and whistles, often lacks.

Released on June 29, Troublecharted at number 52 on the Billboard album charts, and "Locked Up" is getting heavy spins on New York's Hot 97 (WQHT-FM 97.1), the number-one urban station in the country. Whether Akon goes on to be a major artist or not, this summer he's providing a breath of fresh air in a sea of artifice.

 
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