Lord of the Ringtones

How Akon became a star.

R&B singer Akon is an unlikely superstar. He was born in St. Louis to Senegalese immigrant parents, and it’s a safe bet that no previous Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper is a native Wolof speaker with a given name like Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam. He spent the early years of his career in semi-obscurity, writing and producing records for a variety of second- and third-tier rappers, many of them French. Even when he started collaborating with higher-caliber artists, Akon seemed definitively B-list, destined to go down in history as a minor figure—the guy who crooned the chorus on Young Jeezy’s “Soul Survivor.”

But here we are in 2007, and Akon is arguably pop’s top act. Only Norah Jones and Chris Daughtry have sold more albums this year, and Akon’s Konvicted, released in November, has sold more total copies than either. He’s had three consecutive smash singles, including a No. 2 hit, “Smack That” (with Eminem), and two No. 1s, “I Just Wanna Love You” (featuring Snoop Dogg) and “Don’t Matter.” As a songwriter/producer/mogul, Akon is hugely in demand. His protégé, Atlanta R&B singer T-Pain, is a Billboard chart fixture. He co-wrote, co-produced, and sings on Gwen Stefani’s current Top 10 hit “The Sweet Escape” and is rumored to be collaborating with Elton John, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson, among others.

There’s at least one good reason for Akon’s success: the tone of his voice. He sings in a high, lilting, slightly nasal tenor, which frequently slides into mournful little trills. It’s an exotic sound, carrying hints of Akon’s West African roots: Senegalese mbalax music and the Muslim muezzin’s call to prayer. You can hear that sound in the 2004 hit “Lonely,” and, especially, in my personal favorite Akon moment, the wordless hoots in the chorus to Stefani’s “The Sweet Escape.” No recent African-American star has sounded quite so African.

But vocal novelty aside, Akon is dispiritingly conventional. His success signifies the collapsing distance between R&B and hip-hop—the desperation with which singers are trying to sound like rappers. Of course, the lines between these genres got blurry long ago, and, on balance, that’s been a good thing. Hip-hop producers have made R&B sonically arresting, and singers like Beyoncé, R. Kelly, and Usher have imitated rappers’ silver-tongued syncopations to wondrous effect, inventing an exuberant, rhythmic modern singing style. But Akon is no Beyoncé. When he tries to do the speedy rhythmic thing, as on his current No. 1, “Don’t Matter,” he pilfers outright, lifting a vocal melody from R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix).”

Akon’s rap fetish is most evident in his ultra-macho subject matter. He sings about guns and narcotics, crime and punishment—a style that has been dubbed gangsta R&B. He did time in a New Jersey jail for drug dealing and armed robbery, and his breakthrough single “Locked Up” (2004) was a lament about life behind bars, sung over a glum minor-key piano figure: “Visitation no longer comes by/ Seems like they forgot about me/ Commissary is getting empty/ My cell mates getting food without me/ Can’t wait to get out and move forward with my life.” Konvicted features more wistful piano arpeggios and tough talk. In “Blown Away,” Akon sings: “I done seen the block break down tears/ And I done seen the cops break my peers/ Tryin’ to hold on to a couple more years/ Tryin’ not to get blown away.” Gangsta fatalism is such a rap cliché that it’s difficult to take seriously—especially when it’s delivered in Akon’s plaintive little warble. Hard-boiled has never sounded so soft.

But the essence of Akon’s gangsta R&B isn’t gangsterism at all. It’s misogyny. If your idea of romance involves greased stripper poles and women waiting on all fours to receive a hard smack, Akon is the Don Juan for you. It’s pointless to complain about hip-hop sexism at this late date—but it is dreary to find it seeping into R&B, once an oasis from rap’s brutish sexual politics. The larger problem with Akon’s “love songs” isn’t moral but aesthetic: the brain-numbing banality of another ode to a big-booty stripper whose “pussy get wet” when a playa flashes his cheddar. The poetic imagination at work here is summed up by the title of Akon’s biggest hit to date (in its unbowdlerized album version): “I Wanna Fuck You.”

Even the stupidest lyrics can be redeemed by a great tune. But Akon’s music is as dumbed-down as his words. Most songs have anemic little choruses strung together by stolid, almost nonexistent verses. This approach to songcraft can be traced to Akon’s musical apprenticeship as a singer of “hooks,” the melodic bits in rap song choruses—which, generally speaking, aren’t really hooks at all. (In hip-hop, the catchy parts are the beat and the grain of the rapper’s voice.) Tellingly, the highlights of Akon’s songs are invariably the 16 or so bars he gives over to guest MCs.

As for Akon’s hooks: They’re little jingles, of four or so notes, generally in minor keys. In truth, they’re not really proper choruses so much as advertisements for ringtones, which, as any music-industry analyst will tell you, is where the real money is these days. Between Akon and rapper Mims, the other breakout star of 2007, there’s reason to suspect that we have arrived at a historical tipping point—the moment when the cell phone replaces the  record as the central icon of popular music culture. There’s no question that Akon’s stuff sounds best braying from a Motorola Razr. The other day, I was walking in a Lower Manhattan park, when I heard a familiar melody blipping out of a nearby phone. It was the singsong refrain from Akon’s “Smack That,” and I had to admit, in this robotic version, it was sinisterly catchy: I felt it burning, burrowing into my brain, earworm style. Just then, a group of college-age guys walked by and burst into the song’s chorus, singing the tender words that every girl longs to hear:

I feel you creepin’, I can see you from my shadow
Wanna jump up in my Lamborghini Gallardo
Maybe go to my place and just kick it, like tae-bo
And possibly bend you over, look back and watch me
Smack that, all on the floor
Smack that, give me some more
Smack that, ‘till you get sore
Smack that, oh oh