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Riding Dirty 

Akon shifts from personal mayhem to profitable music

Every artist projects a persona, a mask that hides his true self. Akon Thiam is no different.

Some people mistakenly identify Akon as a rapper because he embraces his delinquent past. In 2004 when he released his first album, Trouble, he broke through with "Locked Up," a self-produced jailhouse lament shaped like modern-day blues. Improbably, it reached the Top 10 in the music charts. Other R&B artists, from James Brown to Jaheim, have openly discussed being incarcerated. Akon may have been the first to record a major pop song about it.

Two years later, Akon returned with "Smack That," where he prowls through nightclubs for one-night stands. "Money no problem pockets fulla that now," he sings in his uniquely melodic voice. But he nearly got lost in the shadow of Eminem, the superstar emcee who peppers the track with "pedicure, manicure and kitty cat claws." For pop-culture enthusiasts (and in spite of "Locked Up") who powered "Smack That" to a No. 2 position in the charts, Akon was the newcomer, the anonymous R&B singer lucky enough to get a rare guest verse from Slim Shady.

In press interviews and magazine stories, Akon shifts these masks at will. One moment, he's the R&B thug alongside ATL "trapper" Young Jeezy on "Soul Survivor." Then he's the smiling, mischievous pop idol, driving the getaway car for Gwen Stefani in the video for "The Sweet Escape." In each snapshot, he gives most of himself, but not enough for you to see the complete picture.

As his popularity swells, the balance between Akon's public and private identities continues to shift. "It's crazy ... I was talking about being incarcerated and 'locked up' in an actual facility, and it almost feels the same now that I'm successful," says Akon during breakfast at Park 75, a restaurant inside the Four Seasons Hotel. Later, he would attend the 2006 BET Hip-Hop Awards at the Fox Theatre.

His second album, Konvicted, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart when released last November, and is already certified platinum. His two singles, "I Wanna Love You" with Snoop Dogg and "Smack That," peaked at No. 1 and 2 on the singles chart, and more than 3 million ringtones of the songs have been sold.

"It's like I'm on house arrest. I can't go out to the club, go the mall, go to the movies with a girl, and speak freely to the public like I used to. It's almost like I'm confined mentally in a lot of different ways, because I have to think about every action because it's going to affect me later."

Understandably, Akon likes to keep some parts of his life secret. He won't give the neighborhood, or even the region, of his Atlanta residence, nor will he reveal the ages or names of his three sons. He declined to give his real age; he has told other journalists he's 25, but judging from when his career began, he's likely older than that.

Akon doesn't need to embellish, since he's already lived an unusual and turbulent life. Born in St. Louis, his father is Mor Thiam, a noted Senegalese drummer who performed with choreographer Katherine Dunham and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Akon is American, but identifies as an African and a Sunni Muslim. "My pops felt like we would get a better education in the U.S.," he says. "All of our family is still [in Senegal]: Uncles, nephews, aunts, grandparents, everybody's still there. I still have a house there. Yeah ... every chance we get we go home."

Near the end of his elementary-school years, he moved to Jersey City, N. J., and eventually came to Atlanta to attend Clark Atlanta University on a Division II basketball scholarship. He dropped out after one year. "At the time, I was all over the place. Mentally I wasn't ready for nothing," he said. "I just wanted to be famous."

Already a professional musician, Akon was a part of the Fugees' Jersey-based Refugee camp, and made an unaccredited appearance on the group's multiplatinum 1995 album The Score. Akon signed with Elektra Records in 1994. The label released his single, "Operation of Nature," before dropping him two years later.

But when the Elektra deal fell apart, Akon turned to hustling -- shuttling between Atlanta, Chicago and Jersey City as part of a car-theft ring. "I was out of college at that point, so I was free to move around," he says, describing this period in his life "like New Jersey Drive," in reference to the 1995 movie about car thieves in Newark, N. J.; although, he adds, "I was never the one actually stealing the cars. It was more business transactions."

Around this time, Akon met Devyne Stephens, an imaging expert who groomed artists such as Usher and TLC for LaFace Records. The two became close friends. "I believed in him from day one," Stephens says. "I helped him develop his sound and his music." And when Akon shuttled in and out of prison during the late '90s, Stephens often bailed him out. "He kept getting in trouble," he says. "I think he relied on me as a crutch at that point."

Finally in 1999, Akon was arrested in Atlanta and formally charged with leading a car-theft ring. "I did 3 years from '99 to 2002," Akon wrote in an e-mail response to questions about his incarceration. "[I was] charged for being a ring leader of a notorious car-theft operation and gun charges. I was [acquitted] for the ring leader charges but did time served for the gun charges plus 3 years probation."

While in prison, Akon wrote most of the songs for his first album, Trouble. When he got out, he signed with Stephens' production company, Upfront Entertainment. For a while, Stephens unsuccessfully shopped the Trouble demos around the industry. "I took it to J Records, Virgin, Sony, Def Jam, a couple of small production situations, and Bad Boy, and none of them showed interested," Stephens recalls.

Finally in 2003, Street Records Corporation, an imprint distributed by Universal Motown, took a chance on Akon. Its gamble paid off when Trouble sold more than 1 million copies and launched two Top 10 hits, "Locked Up" and "Lonely." Meanwhile, Akon's trials and tribulations became part of his "Konvict" brand. "I've pretty much washed my hands of it completely," he says of his criminal past. "I'm just all about legitimizing everything and keep[ing] a good spirit around me."

As a singer, Akon can be an acquired taste. His voice is light and quavering, lacking the throaty heft, gospel inflections and operatic melisma that mark so many great soul singers. But it's also light and conversational, as if he were softly humming a tune under his breath.

Music and R&B fans often don't know whether to evaluate Akon as a serious artist or dismiss him as a pop novelty. Konvicted is an odd assortment of raunchy hits such as "Smack That" and "I Wanna Love You"; "Mama Africa," a sunny reggae-styled tribute to Akon's motherland; and "Tired of Runnin'," where he remorsefully admits, "That gangsta life ain't no longer in me."

Mostly written, arranged and produced by Akon, Konvicted's keyboard sounds are an organic extension of his varied impulses -- street-certified R&B, Top 40 pop and heartfelt soul. But it doesn't sound unified, instead shifting tone from track to track. If we don't know what to make of Akon yet, it's because he presents his disparate talents as an intriguing but disassembled puzzle -- a series of masks -- instead of a unified whole.

Akon may be an enigma, but he's a likable one, and he plans to capitalize on the goodwill surrounding his name. His 10-point plan for global conquest reportedly includes three companies (Kon Live Distribution, Konvict Entertainment and Upfront/Konvict), a slate of production assignments for artists such as Whitney Houston, film and television show treatments, a clothing line and even an African diamond-mining business called Aliaune (his first name) which supplies non-conflict diamonds.

The Konvict labels have already yielded Florida R&B singer T-Pain ("I'm In Luv with a Stripper"), who records for Konvict Muzik/Jive; and former TLC singer Chili, who is recording for Kon Live Distribution/Interscope. Stephens helps manage Akon's growing empire. "I didn't want to have my [Konvict] movement without him, because he put me on," Akon says. "He's my partner in the business."

This spring, Akon will go on a worldwide tour with Gwen Stefani. (It reaches Hi-Fi Buys Amphitheater on May 11.) He doesn't have time to worry about his place in music history, and is more concerned with maximizing his current success. For now, his legacy will have to wait.

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