Before he had a hit single, sang a hook on a grimy rap song or penned hits for some of music’s biggest stars, Akon was living the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
Except instead of being an internationally known singer, Akon was what he likes to call a “hood celebrity” — a small-time hustler enjoying success and notoriety from the street life in Newark and Jersey City, N.J.
This life repeatedly landed Akon behind bars. And it was a life he was reluctant to give it up.
“I wasn’t realizing that same attention, that same cash flow, that same surroundings like that whole hype around it could be done in a legitimate way too,” says the congenial Akon, who this week released his sophomore album, “Konvicted.” “You could be a hood celebrity for the rest if your life, just never leave the hood, always be popular — everybody love you.”
It wasn’t until he had an extended stint in the penitentiary that Akon explored the talents that could make him money legally. In some ways, it wasn’t that much of a stretch; his father is a jazz percussionist, and Akon had been writing songs for his own amusement for years.
“At that time, music wasn’t an option. I never even thought about music as a career,” says Akon. “I had a lot of people that was around me too, just straight street, gangsters, people that really looked (at) R&B like it was soft. So, even though I did those kind of records, they would never hear them.”
Singing about life behind barsNow everyone is hearing what Akon has to say — and few would ever describe the singer, writer and songwriter as soft. Though he had a hit with the Bobby Vinton cover “Lonely,” he’s better known for conveying what could be called gangsta angst.
His breakout song, 2004’s “Locked Up,” found him warbling about his stint behind bars; on “Soul Survivor,” the urgent track he penned for rapper Young Jeezy, Akon’s sweet falsetto belies the threatening words he sings: “If you lookin’ for me I’ll be on the block / With my thang cocked possibly sittin’ on a drop ...”
This year, he’s worked with another hard-core rapper, Rick Ross, on his debut record, and the first smash from Akon’s album is the sexually charged “Smack That” with none other than Eminem, while “I Wanna Love You” — the clean version of another naughty song — features Snoop Dogg.
But there’s more to Akon than rap collaborations. He’s featured on Gwen Stefani’s new record, wrote a sweeping anthem for teen heartthrob Mario’s upcoming album, did a remix for India.Arie’s empowerment song “I Am Not My Hair” and even plans a song for Michael Jackson in 2007.
“I can do records from rock, country, pop. Those come in my sleep, literally, and as time goes on, you’re gonna see me work on a lot of those type of records, and you won’t believe your ears” Akon says, somehow managing to sound boastful and humble at the same time. “A lot of those records come a lot easier than the hip-hop records do.”
The musical education of Akon (born Aliaune Thiam in America to Senegalese parents) began when he was a kid, following his father Mor Thiam to jazz joints around the United States. That inspired his penchant for percussion — but that’s about all he loved of his dad’s music.
“I can’t stand jazz. Even now, I can’t listen to it,” he laughs. “It’s a lot of stuff that I never really understood about jazz.”
After a while, he began to seek his own interests. But that would become difficult for the Akon, who spent much of his youth in Senegal and returned to the United States as an adolescent with a thick accent (though he now sounds like a typical Northeasterner from the hood).
“When you come from another culture, you naturally stick out like a sore thumb. I mean, I literally stuck out from all the other kids,” he said.
“It was times when of course cats would make fun of me, and at the time, dark skin wasn’t in style.” he says, laughing.
Over time, Akon stopped brushing off the taunts and started reacting to them — violently. That earned him a reputation of a “crazy African kid,” he jokes, but also gave him a street rep and led him to gravitate toward crime.
“I’m hanging out in the projects, hanging out in the hood and you know what comes with that. So now I’ve got to start living up to my name,” he says. “It was trying to fit in, trying to get paid, and trying to maintain that respect. That’s what got me caught up in a lot of situations. Before you know it, I was making decisions just on the strength of trying to keep my reputation alive.”
A car theft rap in Atlanta, where Akon now lives, was his last stint behind bars. After that, he plunged completely into music. The plan was to work quietly as a producer for others while building up his own career as a singer. But the request for beats exploded as Akon took off with his debut album, 2004’s “Trouble.” Soon, Akon found that producing and writing others — while carving out a prime guest spot on the track for himself — was the best way to build his own success.
“It got to the point where I needed more exposure, so I kicked in on the production side,” he says. “I was like, ’OK, this will set up for the next album. ... I’ll be more experienced as an artist, songwriter, producer, so it will just make a lot of things that much easier.”
The plan has succeeded. “Smack That” is No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts, “I Wanna Love You” not far behind and the album features a wealth of songs that could be hits — from the reggae-infused tribute to his homeland and its people, “Mama Africa” to the gritty “Shake Down.”
But Akon says even if he does reach that superstar level, his goal is not to get his face on the covers of magazines. He just wants his music to be universal.
“I’m just a face, I’m the voice, but it ain’t about me. It’s about the records.”