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Smack this: The True Story of Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Puru Nacka Lu Lu LU Badara Akon Thiam (aka. Akon)

You might know him as the man behind that dreamy hybrid of West African vocals and U.S. East Coast beats. You might know him as the founder of Konvict Muzik and Kon Live Distribution. You might simply know him as the guy who sings the catchy “woo-hoos” in Gwen Stefani’s even catchier hit single, The Sweet Escape. You may know him in a lot of ways, but if you’ve had any sort of contact with the outside world this past year, then know him you most certainly do. He’s Akon: singer, producer, and the music industry’s new It-Guy. He has sold 3.3 million albums worldwide. He’s topped every possible music chart, from the Billboard Hot 100 to Virgin’s Most Downloaded Ringtones. He’s currently touring with big names like Gwen Stefani, and has a worldwide solo tour later this year.

But Akon is more than just the number-one name on a bunch of lists. This talented young superstar has a long and interesting history dating all the way back to October 14, 1981. This was the date on which he was born to Senegalese parents in St. Louis, Missouri. No one’s really sure why he calls himself simply Akon, but many speculate it has something to do with the fact that his real full name, Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam, wouldn’t look good on a CD cover.

We all know that Akon is a success. In fact, chances are, there’s an Akon song playing on your radio as you’re reading this. But before we get into the intricacies of his music, let us first take a close look at his deep and often dark history.

Akon’s U.S. birth was a strategic move on the part of his parents, who wisely calculated that if Akon were born in the States, Akon would be an American citizen, and would thus have a better chance at a good education. However, Akon spent the first seven years of his life in Senegal. Then, until he turned 15, he and his family split their time between the U.S. and Senegal. Finally, they settled in Jersey City. No information is available as to how Akon adapted to his new surroundings, but one would guess he was something of a novelty: he was fluently trilingual, speaking English, French and Wolof. He was also already strongly drawn to music, which was no surprise; he was, after all, the son of jazz percussionist Mor Thiam. During his high school years in Jersey City, Akon discovered hip-hop, and recorded his first song, Operations of Nature.

Unfortunately, Akon soon turned to other operations, and ended up in jail for armed robbery and drug distribution. He also did time for grand theft auto. The ever-resourceful Akon used his jail time to work on his music. By the time his prison term was up, Akon had plenty of material and, in his home studio, began writing and recording songs. Eventually, his work landed in the hands of the higher-ups at record label SRC/Universal. In June 2004, Akon’s debut LP, Trouble, was born.

Trouble was no trouble at all for Akon. It released all kinds of hits: Locked Up, which was based on his time in jail; Lonely, which topped charts in Germany, Australia and the U.K; and Ghetto, which was remixed by The Green Lantern to sample lyrics from the late legends 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G.

The album that everyone’s talking about these days, however, is 2006’s Konvicted. The first single, Smack That, played on radio stations worldwide pretty much hourly from its November 2006 release onwards, yet was so catchy that it never quite earned the title of overplayed. What it did earn was a Grammy nomination. Smack That didn’t win, but does any song up against a Justin Timberlake track ever win? People loved Smack That because it was catchy and because it featured a fun vocal cameo from Eminem. Smack That sat comfortably on the Billboard Hot 100’s number 2 position for five weeks.

Akon’s second single was the soul-stirring ballad, I Wanna Love You. Lovebirds everywhere have proclaimed it ‘their song’; it closed just about every high school dance in early 2007; and industry watchers speculate that, come taffeta season in June, it will be the song of choice for many a couple embarking on their first dance as man and wife. However, a closer listen to the I Wanna Love You lyrics reveals that when Akon wrote this hit song, he probably had less wedding cake than, say, wedding night on the brain: “Baby stick to me, I’ma stick it to you.” (Yes, this is actually Snoop Dogg speaking, but considering that Akon is watching a girl winding and grinding up on a pole, he’s probably somewhere on the same page.) Anyone needing further proof should just look at the fact that, on radio stations across Europe, I Wanna Love You lyrics are slightly different: the title and chorus replace the Love in I Wanna Love You with a four-letter, less radio-friendly synonym—which has made for some rather embarrassing serenades from young Italian men serenading the daughters of English professors.

Like Smack That, I Wanna Love You features another famous collaborator: Snoop Dogg. Unlike Smack That, I Wanna Love You didn’t peak at number two; it became Akon’s first number one Billboard single and Snoop Dogg’s second.

The album has since spawned a third single, Don’t Matter, which also peaked at Billboard’s number two. Let’s just wrap up the Konvicted talk by summarizing some pretty impressive statistics: Konvicted took a mere seven weeks to go platinum and a mere 16 weeks to go double platinum. It remained on Billboard’s Top 20 after 22 weeks, a rarity in today’s fickle, now we like you, now we don’t music business. In total, Konvicted has made its way into the hands of 3.3 million satisfied CD shoppers worldwide.

One more Konvicted fact. Here’s a little piece of music trivia for any future games of musical Jeopardy you might play: October 5, 2006 was a very special day for Akon and for Hot 100 readers. It was the day that a Hot 100 record was broken by—you guessed it! Akon. Smack That became the highest-climbing single in forty-eight years, leaping from the honorable-mention slot 95 all the way to noteworthy number 7! (Another tidbit for you music trivia buffs: the previous record was held by Jeannie C. Riley for Harper Valley PTA.)

And at this point in the Akon story, it really is necessary to take off on a little tangent and ponder the pros of legal music downloading. For those of you still hiding out in the Limewire and EMule underworld, legal music downloading is when you actually pay to download a song. This is every bit as convenient as illegal downloading, but has the added advantage of actually contributing something to those hard-working artists and producers who put the song out there while keeping you fine-free and a bit further out of jail. Resist all you want, but free music downloads are going out of style.

What does this little moralistic interlude have to do with Akon? Absolutely everything. Akon received his spot in Hot 100 history thanks to a music download site called Hot Digital Songs. The week of October 5, 67,000 downloads of Smack That were sold. Not stolen; sold. It was thus the internet that allowed Akon to make his now-historic leap. Now, just imagine, had all 67,000 of those law-abiding citizens simply ripped Smack That off some illegal file-sharing site, poor Akon may have spent the rest of October dangling somewhere in the mid-80s. Jeannie C. Riley may have preferred that these 67,000 folks lived a little closer to the edge, but the Smack That story clearly proves how online music sales can make miracles happen in the careers of our favourite singers.

However, like we said before, the music industry is a fickle one. Akon held on to his Chart-Climbing Crown for a mere 6 months before Beyonce and Shakira took the spot over when their song Beautiful Liar leapt from measly number 94 to coveted number 3. This happened in the week preceding April 7, when Hot Digital Songs received a whopping 150,000 orders for Beautiful Liar. Come to think of it, maybe Akon has mixed feelings on legal music downloading, too.

Let’s finish off with a few heartwarming Akon stories. It’s too early in his career to know what exactly his tabloid-scandal potential might be, but one thing we know is that he is a truly generous guy. His cause of choice is resurrecting fallen stars and helping them resurface into the realm of the public eye. Case in point: the first artist he signed on to his record label was Chilli, best known for her work in the gone and almost forgotten 1990s girl group TLC.  Even more generous is his decision to work on a few up-tempo records for songstress-turned-crack addict Whitney Houston. We’ll bypass the obvious puns about Akon’s hit song containing the word Smack, and focus instead on the bright stuff—which is exactly the kind of stuff Akon wants to bring to Whitney Houston’s next album. He’s sympathetic towards Whitney’s dark history and hopes to help her get back to the “Whitney we remember.” Whether anyone actually remembers Whitney Houston sober is debatable; even more puzzling is how Akon himself can remember, since the last time Whitney Houston was clean, Akon was probably about five years old. But enough cynicism. The important thing is, Akon believes in Whitney Houston, and anyone good enough for Akon is good enough for us… or are they? Rumor has it that Akon’s post-Whitney pity project will be Michael Jackson.