Who knows the veracity of this, but apparently, Akon’s “real” name — Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam — contains a little phrase that means “I wanna fuck you” in Wolof. I don’t think it’s culturally insensitive to, just for a minute, consider the implications of this, if it could possibly be true. Say Akon, by all accounts an American (he was “raised” in Senegal for all of, what, six or seven years), slipped this phrase in there for a laugh. No big deal, right? Just another joke at cultural sensitivity, on us maybe, but post-Borat we’ve learned to appreciate. Problem is, “I wanna fuck you” isn’t just a crude put-down, it’s the second single from Akon’s second release, Konvicted. The any publicity as good publicity argument’s a valid one, especially for an artist not 100% in the public (read: MTV’s) eye, but there just seems something a bit tooexploitative about using your name as an advertisement.
By reputation and occupation when he’s not doing his own work, Akon’s an in-demand hip-hop songwriter — for everyone from Young Jeezy to Whitney Houston. Being the “hook man”‘s all well and good, but you don’t see the Matrix selling platinum records, and there’s a certain comfort in that. The truth is, whole-hearted pursuit of catchy melody can quickly turn farcical in an artist: revisit “Lonely”, from Akon’s debut Trouble, if you’re skeptical. Not to decry melody for melody’s sake, but when it feels routine and the magic’s all drained, it’s not good. Things go smoothly enough on Konvicted, more or less, until the very last song, “Don’t Matter”. The tune is exactly the same as that of R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)”. What, Akon didn’t think our memory stretched that far back?
Akon kicks off his second album with a series of upbeat tunes at the intersection of R&B and hip-hop. You’ll recognize “Smack That” and “I Wanna Love You” from the radio. The first is a real summer party song, the kind of jam that makes you think of Miami, or perhaps Nelly. Eminem, who makes a guest appearance, does something weird with his voice. He’s affecting Ludacris, or one of those slower Southern rappers, making his voice lower and more sluggish than it usually is. It’s not totally successful, but at least shows some innovation from the Old White Rapper. “I Wanna Love You” though, slathered with Snoop’s characteristic drawl, sounds entirely calculated, like Akon’s thrown-off boast “You know my pedigree / Used to deal amphetamines”. One of the small advances afforded by all this drug rap is that we’ve thankfully had to deal with less misogyny in rap; here we get both the drugs and the misogyny in one mediocre song.
And Konvicted only meanders from there. Don’t get me wrong, the disc has plenty of catchy melodies, and it’s filled with Akon’s smooth, effects-laden voice (reminds you of Craig David on slower cuts like “The Rain”). But the feel of the disc is upbeat — slow — mid-tempo, and there’s no real sense of development. Again, the trouble with never denying the urge to give in to that conventional melody is that things come out sounding homogenized.
Maybe that’s why, even though he will get played on the radio, and even though you might recognize his hits, Akon will never be a top-of-mind artist unless he changes something about his attitude towards songwriting. And so he’ll be one step behind Kanye West (whose College Dropout sped-up soul thing he swipes on “Once in a While”), or reliant on his big-name guests to carry his popular songs — no matter how slick his prison-hardened image. Obviously a talented songwriter and producer, but we should rightfully expect more than “Damala Bouga Time”.