Akon takes a new cue from European dance music while tapping into the supernatural side of songwriting on his latest solo effort, Freedom.
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Akon takes a new cue from European dance music while tapping into the supernatural side of songwriting on his latest solo effort, Freedom.

Photo by Keith Martin

Akon's Work As a Solo artist and producer has no doubt paid big dividends — his ridiculously opulent home on the outskirts of Atlanta is testament enough to that. His minifleet of Lamborghinis certainly owes something to the Platinum-certified Trouble (Universal, 2004) and triple-Platinum Konvicted (SRC/Universal Motown, 2006). And his many productions and collaborations — with the likes of Gwen Stefani, Young Jeezy, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Kardinal Offishall, 50 Cent, T-Pain, Lil Wayne and T.I. — have helped pad the bank account quite a bit, too. Sure to keep that success rolling is his most recent album, Freedom (SRC/Universal Motown, 2008). And there's plenty more on deck for 2009 and beyond.

Photo by Keith Martin

Although Akon has his eye on the prize in the U.S., he's had a wandering eye for Europe as of late. His previous albums were harder, raunchier (“Smack That” and “I Wanna Fuck You”) and rocked more of a hip-hop edge. But with Freedom, he chose lyrical themes less likely to give your mom a heart attack. The biggest difference was in the cue he took from European dance music. “I really wanted to bring that whole European club vibe to the States,” Akon says. “I've seen the reaction in Europe when these records come on. It's totally different. Here, it's not as hype. Between London, Germany and Holland, that's pretty much the preference of music. Here, it's dance music, but it's not quite uptempo; it's more of a relaxed environment. People probably move half the time in the club whereas over there, they're literally sweating on the dancefloor.”

Consequently, Akon jacked up the bpm for his new tracks, ranging from 110 to 130 rather than his usual 95-to-105 hip-hop range. But tempo and European dance flavor aside, Akon kept his songwriting focus consistent: to write hooks that sink in and won't let go. One of the album's singles, “Right Now (Na Na Na),” is the kind of instantaneous pop song that echoes endlessly in your head after you've long turned off the stereo.

“I get inspiration just from experiencing: going through somethin', seeing somethin', hearing somethin' — maybe a conversation,” Akon explains. “I'm paying attention to the environment, and that's how the ideas come. If I hear something that is catchy or something unusual or something that could actually be a saying, then I just incorporate that to be a chorus.”

The chorus is, of course, the most memorable part of a song, and that's why Akon starts there when writing. “Choruses always give you the idea of what the verses are going to be,” he says. “Sometimes, if you add the verse first and then try to come up with the chorus, it's a long process. When you write the chorus first, the chorus actually gives you the idea for what to talk about in the verses, so the song happens a lot faster.”


Ask a songwriter how long it took to write a hit song, and the answer is generally surprising: “I did ‘What You Got’ for Colby O'Donis in 10 minutes,” Akon says. “The Kardinal Offishall record ‘Dangerous,’ I did in 15 minutes. ‘Never Took the Time’ took the most time out of all my records, probably an hour. [For any song] the beat will be done in 10 to 15 minutes. Writing the lyrics will take two, three hours at the most, if I'm overthinking it. But half the time, the concept is in my head while I'm making the beat.”

The most exciting and motivating part of making music is that while listening to a basic beat or part, if you're lucky, the other parts will start to manifest and play in your mind. “Study the beat for a minute,” Akon suggests. “The beat just might give you the chorus. A lot of times, I hear the beat, and I hear the chorus in the beat, and I hear the words. I know it sounds weird, but I can literally hear the whole chorus in the beat.” But if you don't get that lucky, it doesn't mean you have to stop trying. “If you don't get nothing from the track,” Akon says, “then you have to create something: Just play with melodies, come up with ideas and whatever sounds good, and you make a marriage out of it.”

But what happens if that marriage becomes a struggle and the hook doesn't come? It's easy to feel connected to something you had high hopes for. “I understand that connection,” Akon admits. “But me, personally, I don't get connected. If a song don't feel like a smash, I just trash it and start over. It's that simple because at the end of the day, that connection can destroy you. You may love the concept, but you gotta find a pattern in which that concept translates back to people and is simple enough for people to remember it. If I can't, I just come back to it later.”

Beyond instinct and simplicity are the more detailed aspects of songwriting to look after. For Akon, he stresses the importance of changing up parts from section to section. “Sometimes I change the melody to where it sounds like it grew to the next level,” he says. “Or the key may change, so you can hear the original melody in the track, but you just transposed it.”

And then there's the bridge. “A lot of times, I'll change the chords, but I'll keep the same melody, but because the chords changed, it makes it sound like the melody's different,” Akon says. “But you have to change the pattern completely — either slow it down and mellow it out or hype it up and boost up the energy.”


To create synthetic sounds (beyond guitar parts played by longtime guitarist Tony Love), Akon and his co-producer, Giorgio Tuinfort, use the Roland Fantom-X7 and -X8 keyboards, as well as stock sounds from Apple Logic EXS and other soft synths. Akon recently retired his Akai MPC2000XL and now, with help from his engineer Mark “Exit” Goodchild, samples into his DAWs using Native Instruments Battery. Akon doesn't sample from vinyl anymore, but he'll find sounds online or will pick up new sound libraries from places like Turntable Lab. Using both Logic and Digidesign Pro Tools, Akon and his team tweak parameters to make the sounds their own.

As for Akon's vocals, it's between the Sony C800G and Neumann U 87 mics. “The reason why I got those two mics is depending on the song and the mood,” he says. “It's a different texture between the two mics. The Sony is real clean and crisp whereas the Neumann is a little rougher. So depending on if I'm doing hardcore hip-hop tracks, I'll use the Neumann; if I'm doing more pop songs, I'll use the Sony. But I tend to use the Sony a lot more because it tends to bring out my tone a lot better.”

Akon leaves the rest of the signal chain up to Exit. “I always use the John Hardy M-1 mic pre and a Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor,” Exit says. “I try to capture the cleanest, most uncompressed vocal as possible, and that chain delivers best for me. You rarely see my compressor move when I track vocals unless he's really screaming; even then, I'm only compressing, at the most, 5 dB. Compression during recording creates so many problems down the road. When I mix stuff I haven't recorded or that was recorded by a novice, overcompression is the biggest problem.”

As for pitch correction, Akon uses Antares Auto-Tune, but he chalks it up to style and perfectionism — and he's not embarrassed to admit it. “I love it, personally,” he says. “I always thought it was the future. I probably put two notches on mine, just for the texture. If I'm just a tiny bit flat or whatever, my tone stays the same, but the key will be adjusted whereas T-Pain's different. That's his thing. He'll turn it all the way up to max, to where you hear a robot voice. Me, I like to sound exactly on record as I do live, so I try to keep it just to where the keys are adjusted and my voice stays the same.”

Exit uses a combination of Auto-Tune and Celemony Melodyne in the studio, but Melodyne is mainly to fix weird things that Auto-Tune “corrected” incorrectly. “It's to spot-fix something we totally missed during tracking — a bad note that Auto-Tune would take to a wrong key,” Exit explains. “Otherwise, we use Auto-Tune more for the texture. Akon has great pitch as a singer. He definitely doesn't need tuning, but there's something about his rich vocal texture that Auto-Tune actually enhances.”

But Akon doesn't get help from any pitch-correction software during his live performances. “For me, it's just a straight studio thing,” he says. “And that's only because you got the effects in the studio; you might as well use them. The master [recording] is what people are going to listen to for the rest of their lives, so you want to make it sound as good as possible. Live, it's a one-time thing.”


Producers are sometimes reticent to print an effect to “tape” while tracking because it limits options when mixing the final track, but Akon isn't worried about that. What's more important to him is holding on to his favorite plug-in sounds after he upgrades his DAWs to each subsequent version. “The only reason I effect as I track is because a lot of these plug-ins won't be available six months from now,” he admits. “The one thing about digital is that it's constantly upgraded. You track it raw, then you mix it with all the effects that you love, and then you upgrade that software — and then all those effects that you had on there before, none of them exist; you can't find that software because they discontinued it, so it kills the whole purpose! And I was like, ‘Never again.’ If I like [an effect], I'm just going to track it like that. That way, the effect stays with me forever.”

Sometimes, effects don't make the song, though. Such is the case with “Against the Grain,” a big atmospheric track with a thick, pulsating synth. One key to crafting a radio-worthy song is to make it massive without sacrificing clarity. “Really, the simpler the track, the fuller it can be if it's properly EQ'd and you use the right 808, right hi-hat, right snare,” he says. “And the bass line and whatever that key instrument is going to be that drives it has to sound full. Wherever there's empty space, that melody will fill it.”

“At a certain point, Akon knew [‘Against the Grain’] was done, even as bare as it is,” Exit concurs. “You can't have a lot of instruments in the same frequency as a dominating sound like that. When I mixed [the song], we basically EQ'd everything around the synth to allow it to dominate.”

Speaking of the 808, Akon appreciates mixing sounds that aren't usually paired together, like an 808 clap with a live instrument. “You can mix two types of instruments from two different genres together to create that different energy,” he says. “People are used to hearing [the 808] in house music, but when you mix those two together, it creates a whole different sound. We did it on ‘Troublemaker,’ ‘Right Now’ and ‘Keep You Much Longer.’”

Meanwhile, Akon keeps his frequencies in check, particularly on the low end. Heavily influenced by rhythm since he was a child — his Senegalese father, Mor Thiam, was a renowned jazz percussionist — Akon prioritizes the kick. “The bass has to support the kick rather than the kick supporting the bass,” he says. “There's a certain frequency to where it works side-by-side with the kick. Once the song is complete with the lyrics and everything, you'll know exactly how to adjust the bass to where you can hear it just enough [so that] you can feel the buzz and the vibration in your chest, and yet it still don't clash with the kick or all the other instruments.”

For Exit, that means boosting certain fre-quencies within the kick and cutting the same frequencies out of the bass. “We'll distort mixes sometimes because the kick is just beating everything else up,” he admits, “but it will sound good in the car and the club!”

Exit might be more exacting in production and mixing, but Akon leaves it up to feeling. “Music has never been scientific [for me],” he says. “I'll be doing something, and someone will be like, ‘You gotta turn it down a decibel. It's in the red.’ And I'll be like, ‘Do you hear the difference? No? All right, well, keep it where it's at.’”


Akon flies through song ideas quickly, and if they don't match the vibe of the record that he's working on, they either get trashed or put on deck for another release. “Every time I finish an album, I've got tons of material that I put in the vault, and most likely, those are going to be the records that are going to make the next album,” he says. “But it's different between me trashing a record and putting it away. If I trash a record, you're never going to hear from it again. It's gone. Pffft.”

Akon is full of energy, whether it's the effort he puts into recording and writing or what he gives when he performs onstage. “It's the energy, all day,” he insists. “You don't even gotta be in key [onstage]. You can be off the whole time, but if you got the crowd rockin' with you, they gonna remember that. They came to have fun; they came up to jump up, clap, dance and really feel your energy and perform that record.”

And if the audience isn't feeding his energy? “You just do it,” he says. “You do it like being pushed into a fight. You gotta swing your way out. It's no different at a concert. Once that crowd is demanding that energy, you gotta give it to them. If you show them high energy, they naturally move with you. You gotta set the tone to where you think the energy needs to be, and they have to see it in you. Of course, there are going to be people anticipating, who want to see you, and they want to be hype the moment you come out. Your job is to keep them hype, and then for those who ain't hype, you gotta throw it at them.”