The versatile musical dichotomy is always at the heart of each Akon album. It could be a metaphor for the man himself. On one hand there is an extrovert whose tireless devotion is entertaining crowds and fan interaction has caused both adorations and misunderstandings. On the other, a serious businessman who has quickly built an empire that includes a record label, fashion line and charity foundation. In short, an open artist who regrets nothing, but constantly is learning from past experiences.
“I’m a lot more conscious than on my first few albums,” says the singer. “I have a lot of kids that follow me now, so I have to be responsible to those who listen to my music. On [my debut album] Trouble, that wasn’t even a concern because it was about who I was and what I been through. Now I have fans that actually look up to me and follow me, so I’m really watching the content I put on my records.”
What hasn’t changed about Akon is his willingness to discuss his personality and past. “I always felt like people need to know who I am and what my history is,” he says. “That’s why I’m always wide open with everything that happened with me. As much as people support me, I want them to know who they’re supporting.”
There are two moments on the highly anticipated third album titled Freedom, from Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum artist Akon, that are strikingly different. On “Freedom,” the titular track, African melodies and marching drums build up in a brooding anthem that is both glorious and exultant. The autobiographical track is arguably the singer’s most powerful statement to date, as the song crescendos, church-like, to its rousing conclusion.
Elsewhere, “Keep you Much Longer” tells the story of a successful singer who gets the tables turned when his girlfriend embarks on a career of her own. An insistent rhythm with a merciless 4/4 beat, the dance floor filler seems destined to explode in clubs all over the world. As the singer, once again, displays his impressive vocal range, the track is an updated piece of classic house music.
The 13 tracks on Freedom show a marked growth in the singer/producer’s career, exemplifying the more dance-friendly side of the artist. Not to be mistaken: Akon hasn’t abandoned his hip-pop and R&B roots, as the album features guest spots by Lil Wayne, T-Pain, Young Jeezy, Kardinal Offishall, Ray Lavender and Wyclef Jean. But tracks like “Troublemaker” and “We Don’t Care” are set to blow up dance floors, with the former a dance record made “purely for fun” and the latter riding a chugging, arpeggiated synth and disco groove that would make Giorgio Moroder proud.
“The key is to take it from the dark side and into the light,” explains the singer of the album’s vibe. “I’m not gonna be miserable, preachy and unhappy forever. Of course, when you first come out from doing time, you’re excited about being free and want to teach everybody what you’ve learned. But it’s like with the name Konvict Entertainment [Akon’s record label]. “I always use the name as a reminder of where I don’t want to be. It was always for a positive purpose, but some people were falsely translating my message. Just because you presume something a certain way doesn’t mean it’s necessarily that way. You gotta take the time and get fully educated about it, then judge for yourself. I know people have preconceived notions about me. I’m not who they think I am.”
2009 is shaping up to be the biggest year of Akon’s career. In addition to his own album, the Konvict CEO is prepping releases for T-Pain, Lady Gaga, Kardinal Offishal, Flipsyde Dolla and Colby O’Donis. His fashion line, Konvict and Aliaune Clothing, is set to launch in January. Finally, Konfidence Foundation, the charity Akon has personally funded for four years, has teamed up with songwriter/philanthropist Peter Buffett to launch IsThereSomethingICanDo.com, a Google of sorts for charitable foundations. (An elementary school in the singer’s home country of Senegal has already been built, with a hospital being developed.)
It’s easy to get complacent when you achieve the level of success Akon has. With worldwide sales of over 7 million albums, certified gold and platinum status in over 23 countries, hundreds of guest appearances (including a collaboration with Michael Jackson), and the record for the first artist to have the #1 and 2 songs simultaneously on the Billboard charts twice, you’d be forgiven for allowing Akon to lean back. But, to quote the singer himself, “The more successful I get, the harder I work to keep it.”
This work ethic was ingrained in the singer at an early age by his father, famed percussionist Mor Thiam. While being raised in Senegal, Akon would take all the percussion lessons taught by his father while simultaneously studying the violin and keyboard. Upon moving back to the states and later settling in Atlanta, the producer opened up some recording studios as an investment, but quickly found an urge to create music of his own. After doing time, the singer used those experiences as the basis for Trouble, his 2004 debut album which would eventually sell over 2 million copies. 2006 saw the release of the follow-up Konvicted, which, with the help of now-ubiquitous songs “Smack That,” “I Wanna Love You,” and “Don’t Matter” sold over 3 million copies.
“In my heart, I’m the same exact person I was in 2004, the only difference is I’ve grown a lot, I’m just a more mature man,” admits the singer. “I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’ve apologized and corrected them today. At this point, some would say the success is here, relax, but I realize I still need to make the best music possible to capture your attention. If I can accomplish 10% of what I want to do, I might be almost satisfied.”