I Robot, Too!

l akon I Robot, Too!German electropop innovators Kraftwerk claimed proudly in their heyday some decades ago that the robotic sound of their music was not enough: they wanted to become robots. On Akon’s latest album, “Freedom,” out today, the Senegalese-raised, Atlanta-based singer has brought that dream to R&B, though in his case, automatism isn’t the end in itself, just trendiness.

Along with Kanye West, T-Pain, and Lil Wayne (among an ever-expanding list of hip-hop and R&B stars), Akon soaks his vocals with the digital sheen of Autotune. Meanwhile the backing tracks consist mainly of slickly minimal, synth-driven beats. So despite the fact that this is perhaps his most emotionally raw material to date, it’s never sounded so inhuman.

German electropop innovators Kraftwerk claimed proudly in their heyday some decades ago that the robotic sound of their music was not enough: they wanted to become robots. On Akon’s latest album, “Freedom,” out today, the Senegalese-raised, Atlanta-based singer has brought that dream to R&B, though in his case, automatism isn’t the end in itself, just trendiness.

 

Along with Kanye West, T-Pain, and Lil Wayne (among an ever-expanding list of hip-hop and R&B stars), Akon soaks his vocals with the digital sheen of Autotune. Meanwhile the backing tracks consist mainly of slickly minimal, synth-driven beats. So despite the fact that this is perhaps his most emotionally raw material to date, it’s never sounded so inhuman.

The sound is mitigated somewhat by the fact that Akon can carry a tune (West’s latest suffers dismally because he most certainly cannot), and since his continuing narrative of sin and redemption (his 2004 debut was titled “Trouble” and the 2006 follow-up “Konvicted”) has come to the redemption part. Though (he claims) his youth was spent drenched in crime and violence, he’s simply better at crooning aggressive come-ons and preaching positivism than bragging about his rap sheet, as his biggest hit “I Wanna Love You,” proved (the album version is less romantic/more direct: “I Wanna Fuck You”).

The opening track sets the album’s contemplative tone with the lament: “I wanna make up (right now now now) / I wish we never broke up (right now now now) / we need to link up (right now now now).” It’s not the subliteracy of regret or weakness here, but of assuredness. Throughout the record Akon sports his digitized, throaty voice as a weaponized mix of outsized adoration and foregone conquest.

Akon’s evidently taken cues from Ne-Yo’s grown, sexy success, toning down the raunch (there’s no “I Wanna Fuck You” or “Smack That” here) and turning to a more gentlemanly approach of flowery compliments and prostrate praise. Akon still wants to do it with you, ladies, and he more or less knows it’s going to happen, but that’s no reason to not treat you right.

Akon’s fame is due in part, as with lots of pop stars, to his outsize persona. He’s thrown fans off his stages, and offstage he likes to advocate polygamy and has bragged about owning his own diamond mine.

Part of that persona has always bled into his songs too, in the form of street-cred bad boy-ness. It still lingers, as on “Troublemaker.”

Read the song’s protagonist as a drug dealer, an outlaw biker, or just a heartbreaker. But that latter seems unlikely and too innocent amid all the alcohol, sex and gun talk. “We Don’t Care” attempts to answer the question of how much public display of affection is too much. The answer is none.

Yet for the most part Akon puts a distance between the music and the performer that wasn’t there two years ago. The title of the album was going to be “Acquittal,” but as if to generalize the concept and separate it from a biographical moment, it was changed to “Freedom.”

The tempos on “Freedom” are generally quicker than Akon’s earlier work, and even guest stars are given the Autotune treatment. Akon calls it a turn to the “Euro-club sound,” and most of the tracks here are indeed as epic as they are affectless (see also West’s album), though reminiscent more of the hollow balladeering of someone like Howard Jones than of the pounding tech-blasts of Justice. The title track even has traces of Coldplay’s more ready-made anthems; Akon has named Bono and Sting as contributors he hopes to attract to a remix of the song—the same remix.

“Sunny Day” is a kind of sober rumination on the good life from the perspective of someone who came from the bottom (Wyclef’s guest verse is typically weak, reminding us yet again that he is originally from Haiti, not Jersey), and for whom reaching the boring world of comfort and affluence is a blessing and not an alternate life sentence.