Few artists dominated the noughties quite like Akon. You simply couldn’t turn on the radio, or your chosen music video television station without hearing his high pitched, subtly nasal vocals fill the room. There was something almost mystical about the vocal range that Akon occupied, as anyone within earshot always found themselves entranced by it’s magical timbre. As I weaved through the human traffic on route to the Leicester Square location for our interview, I found myself pondering, what precisely was it that made Akon one of the voices of a generation? Was it simply his ubiquity? He’s featured on an innumerable amount of records since he started out, working with everyone from Micheal Jackson, to the likes of Dr Dre and Whitney Houston. Or was he a visionary? Akon was arguably one of the first artists who began lending his vocals to the EDM tracks that became the defining feature of much of the noughties musical landscape.
Either way, forty minutes was slowly beginning to look like an impossible window to capture a career and life as full as Akon’s. But if Akon was able to cover topics like crushing heartbreak, the experience of losing ones freedom, and provide arresting accounts of inner city life, in a similar time frame; then I needn’t look far for inspiration. These narratives were the centrepieces of his seminal debut album, Trouble. Long before penning the inescapable classics that we know him for, Akon – like many of the other master wordsmiths that have gone before him – began his career plying his trade behind the scenes.
“I was writing songs for a guy called Steve Rifkind, he had a record company at the time called Loud Records. He had everyone from Pun, to DMX all the way to Wu Tang Clan, Fat Joe, Mobb Deep, he had all those guys you know what I’m saying? But I was actually a part of the Refugee Camp too, so I was with the Fugees as a writer, so thats how I started. My career started with the Fugees.”
Greatness begets greatness, so the trajectory that Akon soon found himself on should not come as a surprise when taking into account the company that he kept. Despite this, and the musical pedigree that Akon came from (his father was a jazz musician and his mother a dancer), Akon originally had his sights set on becoming a brain surgeon: “I wanted to be a brain surgeon when I was a kid. But then as time went on, I started finding different things that I wanted to do, and it got to the point where I said I just wanna be rich.”
These urges may have seen him veer off course, but even during these off road escapades Akon couldn’t completely nullify his true calling, “Even when I was hustling, the money that I made I would invest into recording studios, cause I used to use recording studios to wash the money, since it was a cash business at the time.” Although Akon’s buccaneering attempts to become rich would eventually result in his incarceration, it was ultimately these experiences that brought the writer that was residing deep inside him to the fore.
“Locked Up”, “Lonely” and “Ghetto” became Akon’s first steps towards global domination. No longer ignoring his destiny, Akon’s ascent was Luke Skywalker esque. Effortlessly bending the world around him to his will; once he recorded a chorus for you, you simply couldn’t take him off. Even his writing process seems like an otherworldly gift that has been bestowed on him: “the beat will always tell me what to say. Interestingly enough, I can always hear the lyrics in the beat. Its so crazy, after I play the track back four or five times, its almost like I can hear what I’m saying already in the beat. Its weird!” Akon’s disruption of the force brought cross generational greats to his doorstep. The Senegalese native’s track with Dr Dre remains one of the only tracks from the fabled Detox album to surface, and tragically his work with Micheal Jackson and Whitney Houston would be the last music they would record.
“What’s crazy is both him and Whitney, both of their last records were records that I wrote and produced. Isn’t that crazy, it scared me for a minute, I was like what does that mean? What’s even scarier was, I was literally, two days away from getting in the studio with XXX Tentacion before he passed away. Whats crazy is we would of gotten in before if my schedule hadn’t changed. That would of made my record with him probably the last record he recored. Isn’t that crazy? That would of been a lot.”
Akon’s unmistakable vocals and songwriting ability are not his only gifts. It’s his foresight that truly signal Akon as one of the greats. With signings like Lady Gaga, T Pain and Wiz Kid; it was clear that he truly sought to sow the seeds of the future. Although Wiz Kid is only now baring fruit on American soil, Akon signed him way back in 2008. The delayed appreciation for Wiz, and Afrobeat music in general; is the result of a systemic division between identity and cultural heritage. Akon says:
“The US has a very gapped area when it comes to history, and understanding African history, Latin history, Indian history. The way the system is set up there, they kinda keep them sheltered from their culture. So you have to go outside the box to get that experience, and we’re at that point now where people are more outside the box than they used to be. They wanna learn more about where they’re from, and understand the culture, the music, the food. Its becoming more of a vibe.”
That same soil is now fertile ground for Akon to begin planting seeds of his own again. After witnessing his other projects grow to unthinkable heights (he says Akon City is due to begin construction in the first quarter of the new year after COVID delays), he’s finally ready to start releasing music consistently again. And innovatively so, the TT Freak EP was released exclusively as sounds on TikTok before being released in a more traditional sense on other DSPs. The landscape may have changed significantly, but Akon’s astute decision making is very familiar territory.
“My catalogue was being super streamed on TikTok. And it woke me up to the point, like oh shit, were the hell did “Bonanza” come from, I released this record before “Locked Up”, and all the sudden its number one streaming on TikTok, like what? So TikTok reached out and said ‘yo your catalogue is the highest streaming on the platform right now’. So I started paying more attention to it, so I said yo I should create a TikTok EP. Just for TikTok, so I came up with the concept and went back to TikTok, and they fucking loved it and we decided to do the partnership for it.”
With the new EP now in circulation, Akon’s already thinking about the next goal. Akonic is the next phase of this new found second wind. It’s going to be his first album in 13 years, although tight lipped about its exact contents, he promises the 15 tracks will include Afrobeat joints bathed in those enigmatically enchanting vocals, as well as a hearty serving of the Akon we so readily gorged ourselves on over the years. So although Akon’s two sons, Jahvor & Ty Pittman are set to release their own projects this year, it’s seems that Akon is not quite ready to abdicate.