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Interview:
There's No Escaping Akon These Days
 

By GARY GRAFF
Of the Oakland Press

» See more SOUND CHECK

There’s a new spelling for hit these days: AK-O-N.

The Senegalese-American R&B artist, writer and producer, born Aliaune Thiam in St. Louis, has been on a tear since the November release of his second album, “Konvicted.” It’s sold more than 3 1 /2 million copies worldwide and launched a trio of hits — the chart-toppers “I Wanna Love You” and “Don’t Matter,” as well as the Grammy-nominated Eminem collaboration “Smack That,” which hit No. 2 and set a Bill board record with an 85-place jump on the Hot 100.

But that’s just part of the story.

These days, you’ll find Akon all over the pop charts — on hits with tour mate Gwen Stefani (“The Sweet Escape”), Young Jeezy (“Soul Survivor”), Bone Thugs-n-Harmony (“I Tried”) and DJ Khaled (“We Takin’ Over”). He’s also featured on upcoming albums by 50 Cent, T-Pain, T.I. Mario, Daddy Yankee, Three 6 Mafia and Fabolous, among others. He’s working on tracks for Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Elton John,

and he’s talking about a collaborative album with Young Jeezy.

He’s also launched a label, Konvict Muzik, as well as a fashion line, Konvict Clothing. And he’s working on an autobiographical film, “Illegal Alien,” with Mekhi Phifer in the starring role.

As Bones Thugs-n-Harmony’s Layzie Bone puts it, “He’s killing it, man. Akon is The Man. He’s got the touch of gold. That’s really a blessing, for real.”

But Akon, 34, claims to not be as cognizant of his success.

“I normally don’t keep track,” he says. “I keep working. I deal with the numbers later. I don’t look back to see how I’m doing each week; I just keep working as hard as I can, man — and then I’m surprised by (the success).”

And juggling all of his endeavors, he adds, is “really simple.”

“The thing you’ve got to realize,” Akon says, “is you can’t do it all yourself. You’ve got to hire. ... You make sure to get it done and get qualified people to run your business. That way you can focus on being an artist and a creative guy.”

The drive comes from a life that’s seen its share of turmoil. The son of jazz percussionist Mor Thiam, Akon moved from St. Louis to Senegal and then to New Jersey, where he discovered hip-hop culture and recorded his first song, “Operations of Nature,” when he was 15. He continued to develop his skills in jail, where he’s spent a total of about five years for armed robbery, drug dealing and auto theft convictions.

Incarceration inspired many of the songs on his 3 million-selling 2003 debut “Trouble,” including the breakthrough hit “Locked Up.” It also charged Akon, who now resides in Atlanta, with a desire to help other former convicts, mostly through jobs in his burgeoning Konvict empire.

“When I first came out, I couldn’t get a job to save my life,” explains Akon, who last month issued a public apology for performing a sexually explicit dance on stage with a 14-year-old girl in April in Trinidad, which caused Verizon Wireless to drop its tour sponsorship.

“Society won’t accept you when you’re a convict. So I’m pretty much giving these people a second shot to prove to the rest of the world that you can make mistakes and you can overcome them and do positive things with it.

“That has a lot to do with the success I have, too. A lot of these people never had a shot like this, so everybody has something to prove. My success is theirs, too.”

Akon says he felt more “excitement” than pressure in making “Konvicted,” feeling that he’d already proven himself with “Trouble.”

“When you have a sophomore album,” he explains, “it normally gets easier ’cause you’ve already accumulated a fan base. It’s a lot harder on the first album; nobody really knows you and you don’t know what will work or what won’t work.

“But on your second time out, you pretty much have a better sense of what will work, what kind of records to release for what audience. It’s definitely a lot easier.”

And he was hardly surprised that “Smack That,” which he recorded with Eminem at 54 Sound in Ferndale, provided “Konvicted” with a potent launch pad.

“We felt we could do a record that fit both our personalities and was a fun, club record,” says Akon, who met the Detroit rap superstar when he recorded another song, “Snitch,” with Shady Records MC Obie Trice. “It was no different than working with any of the other artists, really.”

Akon says he’s “about 85 percent done” with his next album predicting that “if you love the ‘Konvicted’ album, this one’s gonna knock your socks off.” Much of the recording is being done on a tour bus studio while he’s on the road with Stefani, a tour that’s going well even though “Konvicted” has outsold the No Doubt singer’s “The Sweet Escape” nearly 2-to-1. Not that he’ll brag about that, however.

“I’ve always admired everything Gwen was doing,” he says. “She’s someone I always looked up to as a musician and a writer. So I look at it like we’re pretty much equal boats.

“I go out there and get the audience revved up and ready for her, so she comes on and just does what she does. I’m OK with that.”



Akon performs with Gwen Stefani and Lady Sovereign at 8 p.m. Friday (June 1st) at The Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $39.50-$69.50. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.



Web Site: www.palacenet.com

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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