Akon ushers in "new phase" with "Freedom"

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Holding a red velvet cupcake with white frosting and colored sprinkles, Akon stands atop an extended conference room table at Universal Records’ New York headquarters. He’s ecstatic.

Singer Akon arrives at the 2008 American Music Awards in Los Angeles November 23, 2008. REUTERS/Phil McCarten

The hip-hop and R&B singer/songwriter/producer is clad in a crisp, white button-up shirt, a black tie, vest and jeans, and sports perfectly rippled waves in his hair -- “Your hair looks good, baby,” Universal Records vice president Sylvia Rhone would later compliment him. There’s a reason Akon, born Aliaune Thiam in Senegal, is wound up. The 34-year-old musician just completed his third album, “Freedom,” slated for release Tuesday (December 2) on Konvict/Upfront/SRC/Universal Records.

“I’m so excited about this album. It’s a new phase for Konvict Music, and I couldn’t have done it without all of you,” he tells the 30 staff members in the room.

Akon’s trying to move on from his somewhat tarnished past -- and on “Freedom” he proclaims he’s adopted a new sound, setting the album apart from his debut, 2004’s “Trouble,” and 2006’s “Konvicted.”

“Everyone knows the Konvict sound already, so we had to switch it up -- a lot,” he says. “Now we’re bringing the whole Euro-club sound.”

To help introduce the fresh style while still catering to his established fan base, Akon followed his usual format of releasing two singles -- the “double whammy,” he calls it -- just days apart. First, the fast-paced pop song “Right Now (Na Na Na),” with keyboards and synthetic sounds for the crossover market, went on sale October 7. For his urban fans, the hand-clap-laden “I’m So Paid,” featuring Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy, followed two weeks later.

Supporting the techno-driven club sound are songs like “Keep You Much Longer,” a dance track about missing a past lover; the T-Pain-assisted, guitar-heavy “Holla Holla”; and “Beautiful,” in which Akon sings over double-speed drums.


Although Akon is celebrating the album’s completion, life wasn’t all cupcakes a few months ago. In April 2007, during a performance in Trinidad as the supporting artist on Gwen Stefani’s Sweet Escape tour, he invited an audience member onstage. The rapper started dirty dancing with the willing participant to the point of simulating sex; after the incident was caught on videotape and circulated on the Internet, it was discovered that the girl was only 14 years old. Verizon ended its sponsorship of the tour.

In a statement released to the Associated Press, Akon apologized for the incident but also said that he didn’t know the girl was underage. “It was never my intention to embarrass or take advantage of my fans in any way, especially those under the age of 18,” he said. “That is why we tried to make sure that the club did not admit anyone under 18 in the audience. Somehow, that standard was not met.”

Akon released the song “Sorry, Blame It on Me” online as an expression of remorse. The episode prompted Trinidad’s prime minister to order a formal investigation into the incident, but no charges were filed.

A few months later, during a show in Fishkill, New York, Akon lifted and tossed to the ground a teenage heckler who allegedly threw a bottle at the singer. Claiming to have injured his arm, the teen pressed a misdemeanor count of endangering the welfare of a minor and second-degree harassment charges against the artist. Akon will go to court regarding those charges Monday (December 1).

“Right now I can’t speak on the incident from upstate because I’m still on trial,” Akon says. “But as far as everything else goes, one thing I did learn is, with success a lot of that comes and you have to be prepared to manage it. Good thing is I had ample time to get with good people and say my side of the story. Sometimes when things like that happen, you don’t get a chance to tell your side.”


And as if all this weren’t enough, earlier this year accused Akon of fabricating parts of his personal history -- including that he was a leader of a notorious car-theft ring and spent four years in jail for it. The Web site said it attained police, court and corrections records refuting Akon’s claims. Considering that Akon’s previous run-ins with the law inspired his musical career -- including his first single, “Locked Up,” which he wrote while in the pen, his audio trademark (the clanging sound of a cell door closing) and the name of his label -- the allegations put his credibility on the line.

Declining to go into detail, SRC Records founder Steve Rifkind says Akon’s professed past is real, but the label managed to get most of the charges removed from his record.

“What happened was, he did do the time, but because he couldn’t get into certain countries due to his legal record, he was losing out on money,” Rifkind says. “So, although he did the time, we cleaned up what he did. At the end of the day, as long as he makes great music, he’ll win. He’s trying to be a positive role model. He’s an incredible person.”

Recently, after a video of Akon bumping into a female during a concert in Ghana surfaced on the Internet, gossip sites started rumors that he had an anger management problem and that he pushed the concertgoer purposely. Akon’s label immediately requested footage from the promoters and now says that the clip was digitally manipulated.

The title of the new album is reflective of Akon’s attempt to move past his legal troubles.

“Originally the album was supposed to be called ‘Acquitted,’ which means the same as freedom really, but I’m at a stage now where we are revamping the whole image of Konvict itself,” Akon says. “I wanted people to understand the word ‘Konvict’ and how it came from an experience that allowed me to change my life for the better. Unfortunately, it wasn’t coming across the way I wanted it to. So I had to make certain choices as far as image goes, how I speak, even with the title that I chose. ‘Freedom’ sounds a lot more positive and it gives you a bigger spectrum of where you can go. It also reflected where I am headed as a person, as a man and as an entrepreneur.”


Akon is working on a separate edition of “Freedom” that will include remixed versions of all the album’s original songs, including a potential collaboration with Bono and Sting on the title track. The repackaged version will be available early next year.

Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson recently had Akon-produced songs leak on the Internet -- “Like I Never Left” and “Hold My Hand,” respectively -- but Akon assures that he has no information on whether either will release a comeback album any time soon. “With those types of artists you can’t really say,” he says.

Akon dispels rumors of Jackson being signed to his label or touring with him and expresses his disappointment in the leaks, particularly “Hold My Hand,” which was removed from “Freedom” as a result.

“It took all the excitement away. It was a heartbreaking moment for both of us,” Akon says. “We wanted it to be special. We wanted it so that when people got my album, it was something that was never heard -- a big surprise. But, the leak stopped those plans.”

Akon has been in serious talks with VH1 about a reality show based on him and his brother -- who works for Konvict and bears a striking resemblance to the singer -- but he says that for now, music is his priority.

“As soon as I conquer music, I can relax and focus on other things,” he says. “Right now I’m strictly focusing on ‘Freedom.’”