Caught up

This weekend I’ve been bumping Akon’s Konvicted, which is set to drop on Tuesday. It’s going to be interesting to see how it performs. When Akon debuted with Trouble back in June of 2004, nobody really knew who he was. His first week sales were abysmal, coming in somewhere near the 5K mark. But over the course of a year he blew up, went platinum and became the new Nate Dogg. I’ve always been curious how that happened.

Obviously Akon is a major talent. And I can see why he would appeal to a broad range of people. He’s street enough for the thugs. His bad boy, no-shirt crooning is likely to intrigue the TRL crowd. The Africa connection (he grew up in Senegal) endears him to audiences overseas. Still, what exactly is it that causes a relative no-name to hit so huge?

I interviewed Akon a couple weeks ago for Pound Magazine and asked him that very question. The R&B singer explained that he made a concerted effort to market himself differently than other new artists. Instead of doing club tours and performing to apathetic crowds that would rather get their drink on, he did prison shows. The prison population is a captive audience, desperate for anything that changes up their routine. What’s more, since Akon has done his own bids, his music deals with subjects most inmates can relate to. Playing for the incarcerated generated buzz behind bars, which translated to buzz on the streets. Once he had the streets, the industry and radio followed.

But this explanation only goes so far. Akon did the legwork, sure, but what was the spark that allowed his grassroots campaign to catch fire? Whenever an album is transformed from a simple product to a cultural moment, there has to be a bigger story.

In this case, I think Akon gives voice to a particular experience—one that doesn’t get spoken about often. His persona reminds me of Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan’s song “Struggling.” There’s a few lines of the track that have always stood out to me: “Mostly, I’m up stressing when other folks sleep/Believe me, I know struggle and struggle knows me/My life owes me/Like an overdose, I’m slowly/Drifting into the arms of trouble/Then trouble holds me/And nothing else is close to me/More than pain, unfortunately/Like a self-fulfilling prophecy I’m supposed to be/Struggling.”

Anyone who has ever watched someone they love drift into the arms of trouble is going to understand what I’m getting at here. (And with the criminal justice system perpetually widening its net and becoming its own industry, more and more people will have this experience in the future.) Both the media and mainstream culture as a whole tend to demonize those that get caught up in crime. But, in reality, most guys that end up in jail aren’t bad people at all.

Akon speaks to these men, and to anyone who has ever cared about them. He comes from a world of men who grew up with nothing. Men who got tired of straining to pay bills and being treated like shit at low-paying jobs. Men who couldn’t take it anymore, and decided, fuck it, let me make some money. Men who did things in the night that paid for crisp white sneakers and shiny black Benzes. For a little bit of pride, for a little bit of recognition.

Akon is that guy you grew up with who meant well but messed up. He’s the guy that got caught up and then locked up. He’s the guy that has a big heart, that’s loyal to a fault, that always reps for family and friends. The guy that made some bad choices and now has to pay the price. And that price, when it isn’t death, is extreme loneliness.

The funny thing about Akon is that he doesn’t even have to sing about all of this to evoke it. His voice is drenched in this particular brand of melancholy, regret and longing. His tone and pitch are inseparable from his back story.

So, even though Akon’s sophomore joint branches out in content—with songs about sex (“Smack That” and “I Wanna Love You”), love (“Don’t Matter”), his homeland (“Mama Africa”)—and even though it’s not quite as good as his debut, I expect his fans will stick by him. Once somebody has told your story, you don’t tend to forget them.

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Related: Akon’s smash hit “Smack That” inspires further thoughts on girl records.

  • Layon

    First

  • http://xxlmag.com Bol

    >Obviously Akon is a major talent.

    Word?

  • face

    I like how you yourself try 2 speak to the regular caTz and give us something in your “blog”, whether it’s practical tips on money management, or a head’s up on music that isn’t catered tward ignorance, you don’t get your properz enough…

    but please, dont’ let that stop you

  • http://differentkitchen.blogspot.com/ ian

    Tara, Akon has FAR surpassed Nate Dogg in terms of ability,achievements, audience reach and pretty much any other crtieria you can think of. He’s Youssou N’dour, Young Jeezy and R. Kelly all rolled into one with the appeal and reach all those artists have.

    Even if his US success suddenly ended, he’s so big internationally it almost wouldn’t make a difference. He’s likke Michael Jackson internationally. I think he’s creating the blueprint for a new kind of international pop star who has legit street cred, urban appeal and a global, cosmopolitan sensitbility and sound.

  • TARA

    Ian: Excellent points. I don’t think most people get how huge Akon is internationally.

  • e aka the real noreiaga

    He dosen’t posses the natural talent of Justin Timberlake or Usher in terms of vocal range or hitting notes(no Gayme).

    But his music is always enjoyable and usually hits the top of the charts. He is also the go to guy for rappers who need an r&b type song.

    Akon is the new king of hooks(no 50 snitch).

  • http://dronkmunk.blogpsot.com dronkmunk

    blah blah blah

  • nocal

    Oh yeah I forgot how you love bad music. You write about him as though you’re doing a college project on marketing or something, rather than about how you enjoy the artist.

  • raul

    tara, one of my friends uncle is acually akon’s manager(melvin brown) 2 years ago he did a concert in pittsburgh (where i’m from) and my friends met him(I didn’t wasn’t there)And the way they raved about his live show i am not surpised at all.They said he is one of those people that people were drawn to when they meet him.Does he have the best voice or the most complex lyrics not at all.He has star power and that’s what really make him suceed.Plus you can’t really
    put him in a category is he rap, r&b, gospel he damn near every genre rolled in one. Just look at the
    artist he covered or collaborated with diverse. Nice post Tara and great point were also made by Ian.

  • calimovement

    Akon is very talented, but it remains to be seen if the US public is willing to listen to an entire track with just him on it.

  • weezybaby

    this cd hot listen to the song “shakedown”
    gangsta as shit

  • http://www.davidparrishjr.blogspot.com DP

    Funny….i thought Ian was bullshittin until Tara cosigned him…

    Is he really THAT big..

    Michael Jackson Big?

    damn.

  • Dee

    “it remains to be seen if the US public is willing to listen to an entire track with just him on it.”

    THey already have, remember that song he did “Ghetto”, i think it was a top 10 on th Bilboard singles,

    And that song “Banaza” was some what of a hit

    – i think people just want something from Hip-hop or Urban culture that isnt constantly refrencing coke, killin, and flossin

  • http://myspace.com/legacyhiphop Belize

    tara is grinding..i like that ma!

  • Rizzop

    That shit hi and snoop got is crazy…bitches get all wet in the club….

  • The DJ Formerly Known as N-CREDIBLE

    for some strange reason I like TPain music more…not taking anything away from akon…but their voices are similar and can be compared…whatever that song is that plays on the radio right now…”Windin” is the name i think(the hook i know)…but that song is of the chizzle my nizzle…”i see you windin, grindin…up on the floor”…i feelin that joint…and Akon…smack that is a hot track i didn’t like it at first but it grew on me…Akon has a nice future ahead of him…

  • Incilin

    Although I thought “Locked Up” was a great song, your blog here only refers to that song and acts like that song is on que with the rest Trouble. The rest of the album is not even as close to as dramatic and memorable than Locked Up. Songs like Belly Dancer and Mr Loney is just awful and bland.

  • H-MAN

    Get ya bump and grind on girl…Go EZ baby…Konvict muzik…st8 up street…When ya need a score, just pass tha rock 2 Akon, and he’ll HOOK tha track up…Comin from tha ghettos of Senegal, Africa Africa…Get’em Akon

  • pat

    I was never really feeling Akon. Locked Up and Ghetto are dope but the rest of that album dissapointed me. Too much fluff. To be perfectly honest the only people I see that are still into Akon in North Jerz are white college girls.

  • http://www.myspace.com/corinnemq Corinne

    I really like Akon, he defiantly has his own style. Honestly ,I think he saves a couple of them songs he collaborates with, makes them sound better.

  • SONNY CHEEBA

    Sonny Cheeba’s remix to “Imagine” by Snoop Dogg ft Dr. Dre…

    “…Imagine if Hip-Hop was really ‘for the people’, Imagine if Bol was really YN’s alter ego… Imagine if Transient was as hard as he boasted, Imagine if Rey’s myspace page never got posted… Imagine if Jay-Z wasn’t 36 & rapping, Imagine if Nas really made it fuckin happen… Imagine if Fat Joe’s album didn’t bore us, Imagine if Wayne walks around w/a Dictionary & Thesaurus… Imagine if Jim Jones never made ‘Balllliiiinnn’, Imagine if NBRED was really black & from New Orleans… Imagine if Carmen Bryant & Superhead weren’t silly sluts, Imagine if Hip-Hop didn’t really suck… IMAGINE…”

    I will be posting this periodicaly through out the week kiddies…

    another “instant classic” from the G.O.D.

  • Bang

    Akon’s alright. I like his stilo,(pause) and he doesn’t OD on trying to be a gangsta, really. but his voice is tiresome after a while

    nate’s still a legend with his chronic, chronic 2001, snoop’s songs, and other shit.

    and while Akon’s on the come up to be come a much bigger star than he is right now, I dont wanna hear him sing the same way all the time

  • content

    tara,
    i’m glad to see some support for artist on here. i almost expected to see another Jay-z post. thanks for saving the site in recent weeks.

  • Reed

    In 1925, a girl was killed by a serial killer. While the killer fed on her flesh she chanted, “Ra sho wei na po.” The girl then obtained glowing red eyes. Now, if you have read the chant, she will appear next to your bed at midnight, staring at you with her glowing red eyes until you fall asleep, unless you post this in 5 different topics. Your kindness will be rewarded.

  • http://www.myspace.com/deensekou sATaLyte

    Dam Akon has done bids? In America or outside the states?

    So what is going on with Akon around the world, if he’s being embraced internationally then thats a good thing.

    But also would he have been as hot if he had not blown up in the U.S. or was he just as hot and we were just catching on to him?

    I know the mainstream musical landscape in many countries is very limited at times, do you think with a broader range of african artists who seemed to have made it by international standards, that he would be received in the same regard?

    It seems to be one of those, “who else do we got” situations.

    In the states though, I fear he’ll be shelved with the same contingent of hook singers before him(with the exception of Cee-lo) who can only do hooks because their schtick wears thin after about four or five minutes or so.

  • Global Macro

    classic tara:

    >But, in reality, most guys that end up in jail aren’t bad people at all.

    basically as stupid as saying “most guys in prison are bad” except with the added bonus of being patronizing…

  • 110 street

    ^^^^^^^^^^^^^most dudes that get locked up is trying to make nothing out of something wit out the right path to follow, the best nigga can get locked up.

  • sdafsd

    bought the album!!! It was tight!!!!!!

  • eauhellzgnaw

    Everything about this entry is weak. Akon sounds like he has an air bubble trapped in his throat. He has less range than Nate Dogg, if that’s possible and his lyrics are on some 6th grade “it’s hard on the streets” bullshit.

    Low standards and bad taste are responsible for his fame…nothing more.

  • puiopuiopu

    eauhellzgnaw, you dumbass moron! cop the album before you make you stupid contribution on this board!