saigonnext.jpgSuccess in hip-hop isn’t always just about talent. More and more, it seems, an artist’s prospects rely on a marketable life story. In that light, Brian “Saigon” Carenard should be a sure bet for superstardom. With a degree in street pharmacology, a pair of attempted-murder charges and a seven-year prison sentence on his portfolio (all before he was old enough to legally drive), the 30-year-old New York lyricist has a background that most rappers would trade their six-figure advances for. But here’s the catch: That’s not the story he wants to sell.

“I’m not gonna exploit it,” says the reformed thug of his unseemly past. “Record companies market music to kids. If I’m knowing this, I’m not gonna give these kids a bunch of poison and not give them nothin’ good. If I’m telling you about being a gangsta, I also gotta give you the flip side of the coin.”

Saigon would much rather have fans and label execs focus on his rap résumé than on his rap sheet. Since emerging on the scene in 2001, he has released five heralded mixtapes, been co-signed by everyone from DJ Whoo Kid and Kay Slay to Mark Ronson and Jay-Z, and landed a recurring role as himself on HBO’s hit series Entourage. To top it all off, he’s been signed to superproducer Just Blaze’s Fort Knocks Entertainment imprint on Atlantic Records since 2004. “Everything I acquired up to this point is because of my music,” he says. “I’m not down with no crew. Nobody put me on. I carved my own niche.”

Not surprisingly, Sai’s sense of integrity doesn’t always jibe with the agenda of his record label. For instance, the first single off his long-awaited debut, The Greatest Story Never Told, was “Pain in My Life,” an emotional duet with singer Trey Songz that covers such topics as STDs, child-molesting priests and suicide. In an era of ringtones and catchy dances, the weighty record wasn’t exactly what Atlantic brass was looking for. “It was a big fight, because I believed in the record,” says Saigon. “But it’s the label’s money, and if they don’t feel like they can sell it, they don’t care about what I feel about my music as an art. They care about what we can sell.” The song came and went quietly late last year.

This summer, Saigon finally put the finishing touches on The Greatest Story Never Told, which he expects to have out by early ’08. Armed with a more commercial single, “Come On Baby,” and plans to reprise his role on the next season of Entourage, he believes if he keeps the focus on the music, all the hard work will pay off. “I just made an album for my art,” he says. “What you’re gonna hear from my album is honesty. You’re gonna hear the fact that I care about my people. You’re gonna hear the fact that I care about Black music and Black culture as a whole.”