Artist whose debut album puts a new spin on hip-hop - Akon talks to EW about moving to America, his time in jail, and his debut album ''Trouble''

By Tom Sinclair
Updated August 13, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Call it Method songwriting. R&B newcomer Akon wrote ”Locked Up” — a hauntingly bleak meditation on incarceration — while he was in jail for grand theft auto. But don’t think he’s your typical roughneck. The singer (ne Aliaune Thiam) spent his early childhood in Senegal until his father, acclaimed percussionist Mor Thiam, moved the family to New Jersey in 1986. Maybe his background explains why ”Trouble,” his eclectic debut — which features everything from reggae and hip-hop to world beat and doo-wop — sounds so markedly different from most urban music. Says Akon, 25: ”Music isn’t separated by genre as much [in Senegal] as it is here.”

The African transplant admits he had a hard time adapting to U.S. culture at first: ”The food, the clothing, the music — it all made me feel so different.” He laughingly admits that rap music left him cold: ”I didn’t understand it.” Eventually, though, he came to appreciate hip-hop. Unfortunately, he also gravitated toward a gangsta lifestyle, which led him to spend a total of three years behind bars. Still, his time in prison actually pushed him to step up his efforts for a pop career: ”Being a convicted felon, I couldn’t really get a job, so making music was the best [option].”

Right now, Akon is planning to star in a semiautobiographical film (also called ”Trouble”), and hopes that his second album will double as the soundtrack. Sounds like more than enough to keep him out of that other kind of trouble.