From convict to 'Konvict'

Crime, Law and JusticeJails and Prisons50 CentMichael JacksonGwen StefaniNo Doubt (music group)Missy Elliott

The struggle never stops for Akon.

From a childhood split between Senegal and New Jersey to a years-long jail term on drug and robbery charges and controversy over a provocative dance he performed publicly with an underage girl in Trinidad, the R&B/hip-hop star behind several chart-topping singles ("Smack That," "I Wanna Love You," Gwen Stefani's "Sweet Escape") has pursued career success incessantly.

Fortunately, incarceration helped him focus his attention on music and develop a unique pop style, one that has the likes of 50 Cent, Ms. Stefani (his current tour mate) and possibly Michael Jackson (shhhhh…) knocking on his door for help.

The multi-tasking singer opened up about summer jams, killer collaborations and how to translate his songs into perfect pick-up lines.

This is an interesting tour: pop/alternative rock star Gwen Stefani, British MC Lady Sovereign and…you, an R&B/hip-hop guy. How did this come about?
Ah, man, the success of Gwen and I doing that song "Sweet Escape" on her album together, that really helped. She was like, "Would you like to do this?" It was that easy. I said, "Let's rock!" I think we're going to work together more in the future. I've always really liked her, before in No Doubt and more recently, and it's really magical when we work together. It just feels natural.

You've got this "new sound" that you talk about—it's sort of reggae, hip-hop, R&B and synthesizers. What is it exactly?
I stopped trying to describe it. I guess its "Konvict" music. A lot of people think it's a label or a crew, but I think it's a genre. It's me, T-Pain, Rock City Boys, Faze…that's what I'd describe as Konvict.

There are rumors about you working with a number of artists: Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, 50 Cent—what's true and what's not?
Actually, I'm working on the Whitney album right now. I come up with some ideas, think of different directions for her to go and then we hit the studio. That last part hasn't happened yet. I basically come up with the ideas and let the artist mold it in the way they want. As for Michael Jackson…[Laughs] I can't comment on that.

What was your best collaboration?
Woooo! Tough one. I worked with so many people, all been fun, but the memorable was with Eminem for "Smack That" [which won the Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration in 2007]. He was by far the hardest to get. Everyone else called me, but with him, I had to pursue. When I finally got to him and he said yes, it was like "Mission accomplished."

You've had a number of hits recently. What's the hot summer jam going to be?
The new record I did with 50 Cent. I've followed his career for years, and when we met, it was like we knew each other. That was mad fun.

How did you first get your music out?
I was working with this guy [my cousin] Divine Stevens, a choreographer for Ginuwine, Outkast, Missy Elliott—all those famous cats in urban music. He was a good friend of mine, and he lent me a hand to get started.

You split time between two continents as a kid, you did some jail time—things weren't always easy. Do you think you'd be where you are today if you hadn't gone through what you did?
Yeah, actually, I think I needed to go through that. A lot of people look at incarceration as a punishment, but I saw it as a gift and a blessing. It gave me a chance to sit back, put some structure in my life and evaluate what I was doing and where I wanted to go. Of course, it also made me realize I didn't want to do that again!

You run a clothing line, you act, run your own record label, produce, write, tour—basically, there's a lot of free time on your hands, huh?
I don't have any free time! I'm at a level where I work as hard as I can, so I can get filthy rich and retire when I'm 40. [Laughs]

What do you remember most about growing up in Senegal? How did that influence you, as opposed to living in New Jersey?
I was raised by two different cultures, so it was really the best of both worlds. It helps me out musically, working from what I learned from both sides. And I've toured all over the world, so I can use what I learn here, in Africa, even in Europe, to help shape me.

You frequently tour around Africa. That's pretty unusual for someone with your level of U.S. popularity—how do you like it?
It's incredible. I really think it's like a second home. I'm here working now, but I'm going to go and relax there when I'm done and enjoy the rest of my life. I have a foundation there, helping to build schools and bring in technology to some of the poorer areas, and I'd like to continue on with that.

You're a pretty confident guy. What do you feel is your biggest weakness, or something you'd like to work on?
Wow! Um. Well, before, it was staying focused, because I used to chase girls. [Laughs] I think I got it under control—almost.

I was inspired by "Smack That," so I used one of your lines on a woman at a bar. I asked her if she wanted to "go back to my place and kick it like Tae-Bo." It really didn't work—at all. What did I do wrong?
Oh, man, that's a lead-in line—you don't want to start off the bat with that. Next time, relax, go dance with her a bit, get comfortable and then try it.

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