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Redemption Song: Akon
During an attempted heist overseas, he and manager Big Jah jumped out of a moving car with their fists balled underneath their shirts to make it look as if they were carrying guns. As a slew of gunshots battered their vehicle, a member of his marketing team, a young guy, yelled in a woman-like pitch, "Duck!"
The story sends a wave of loud bellows across the room. Akon runs over to the young man -- who is blushing -- and thanks him for being there for him during the making of this album.
There's a reason Akon, born Aliaune Thiam, is wound up. The 34-year-old Senegal-born artist just completed his third album, "Freedom," slated for a Dec. 2 release 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.
While his anecdotes now are worthy of a chuckle or two, Akon's trying to move on from his tarnished past -- and that's why on "Freedom" he proclaims he's adopted a new sound. This time, the production is slightly different from his debut album, 2004's "Trouble," which has sold 1.6 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and 2006's "Konvicted," which has sold 2.8 million. "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, dropped Oct. 7, and then the hand clap-laden "I'm So Paid," featuring Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy for his urban fans, followed two weeks later. "Right Now" is No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, while "I'm So Paid" is No. 93. Third single "Troublemaker," featuring Sweet Rush, debuts this week at No. 97.
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 "Holla Holla," a guitar-heavy song about cat calling; the bassy "Troublemaker," with Akon boasting about his mack game atop piano riffs; and "Beautiful," in which Akon sings, "I see you in the club/I wanna get with you/You're so beautiful," over double-speed drums.
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. "It's such a huge, global record it only makes sense to extend it," he says. The repackage 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 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 set to appear on "Freedom" but now won't. "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."
And while 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 -- Akon says 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.' "