Akon feat. Styles P — “Locked Up”

Released: 4.12.08

Peak: #8

Akon is as soulful a male R&B singer to have blown up this past decade, his thin but pure tenor distinguished by a slight choke and traces of West African keen. The fortunately named fellow (“a con,” get it?) is no full-stop virtuoso, no font of personality either–if he were as artfully sympathetic as Ne-Yo or as plain funny as T-Pain he’d hardly have earned his hook-crooning crown as Nate Dogg 2K. And he’s not “soulful” in the weathered fashion of a deliberate throwback like Anthony Hamilton, but in a more general sense; at his best, the undercurrent of pain in his voice taps into something communal and historical, rather than isolated self-pity.

Yeah, he’s probably a jerk, as the gallant Bill O’Reilly (along with tireless women’s rights advocates Michelle Malkin and Laura Ingraham) noted–and Akon’s mealy-mouthed, self-righteous, and inadvertently hilarious response “Sorry, Blame It on Me” didn’t help none. (“I was on tour with Gwen Stefani” is one mighty lol-some excuse for slacking on damage control.) And yet, in the bulk of his singles (the only place most of us will ever encounter the guy), Akon is often gentlemanly, if not downright square, more at home commiserating with an accelerated Bobby Vinton’ on “Lonely” than he is instigating sex jams like “Belly Dancer” or the playful “Smack That.”

The image-making “Locked Up” remains Akon’s career high. While much of hip-hop culture sexes up incarceration, “Locked Up” understands prison as a punishment rather than as a rite of passage. Producer Knobody is a strange case–he masterminded “Can’t Knock the Hustle” and “Still Not a Player,” but precious little else. Here, though, he musters strings, circuitous keyboard, cell door slam, and a mad stressed Styles P for a dose of repetitive claustrophobia that does its tiny bit to scare the kiddies straight.

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