It would be easy to get the wrong idea about Akon if you judged him solely by his conduct on stage. Throwing members of the crowd on to the heads of other paying fans? Why, that’s merely an initiation ritual for his band. It would also be easy to get the wrong idea about Akon by listening to the words that come out of his mouth, such as the ones about the car theft ring it turns out he didn’t run. So the only way we can truly understand Akon is through his music. And whaddya know, he’s an average guy.
While the popularity of Akon’s underpowered nasal whine is a mystery as enduring as The Mousetrap, there’s no denying that he knows how to pick a producer. He also knows the precise market value of an earwormy hook, repeated as often as necessary or as possible, whichever is the greater. ‘Freedom’ is effectively an updated repackaging of Akon’s existing schtick, as if he were picking a new theme for his web browser. It features the requisite array of A-list co-stars, including the ubiquitous Lil Wayne (on ‘I’m So Paid’) and T-Pain (on the more seductive ‘Holla Holla’), and sounds very expensive, which it should, because it was. The album lacks the dynamism of a Kanye, a Rihanna or even a Chris Brown – mostly due to the limitations of Akon’s delivery – but it’s certain to go down well with Akon’s existing acolytes. Eddy Lawrence.
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808s & Heartbreak
Last year’s Graduation revealed a craftsman at the height of his powers: Kanye West deftly sampled Can, competently traded verses with Lil Wayne and even made Chris Martin seem cool. The record saw West consciously balancing his dual role of rapper and producer. He’s never risen far above the rhyming fray, but behind the board, almost no one in hip-hop does it better. That’s why disappointment arrives with the overproduced 808s & Heartbreak, on which audio processing programme Auto-Tune proves to be West’s Pandora’s box.
Fascinated with his toy like a kid with a new tricycle who misses dinner, bedtime and school the next day, West distorts his vocals on every track, baring his real voice only sparingly. (So much so that it’s exhilarating to hear it sneak into songs like ‘Heartless’.) A precedent for excellence in voice-warping runs all the way back to John Lennon in ‘I Am The Walrus’, but West goes too far: Dense vocal patterns combine with complex rhythms, resulting in utter overstimulation. ‘Say You Will’, the opening track, has the potential to be a grand lament, but the programming buries any emotion.
West’s brilliance occasionally cuts through: ‘Amazing’ is just that – a study in well-employed Auto-Tune – and ‘Love Lockdown’, the first single, skillfully illustrates the program’s scale tweaks within a swarm of tribal beats. It’s hard not to wonder, though, what that song – and by extension, this record – would be like without
all of the synthetic flourishes. Are we really supposed to believe that a computer’s heart can be broken?
Colin St John. Available at www.7digital.com