The Number Ones

December 2, 2006

The Number Ones: Akon’s “I Wanna Love You” (Feat. Snoop Dogg)

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

For about five years, that high, keening, ghostly voice was everywhere. It seemed to glide, frictionless, out of every radio. It was sleek and calm and just slightly otherworldly. The voice had an accent, but it wasn’t an accent that most Americans could place. The melodies were always simple, and so were the lyrics. But the voice always carried just a hint of melancholy, even when its lyrics were standard party-time boilerplate. That voice moved freely from genre to genre — rap to dance to reggae to R&B to down-the-line centrist pop music. Often, the voice seemed to subliminally blend all those different genres, until they became the same thing.

The voice was mysterious, and so was the man behind the voice. The Senegalese-American singer Akon had an elaborate backstory, and the backstory was key to at least the first hit. But the backstory might’ve been a fabrication; nobody was quite sure. Akon never gave much of himself, either in his music or in interviews. When Akon did speak, he sometimes said absurd and off-putting things — still does — but he usually couched them in the bland and empty language of the international investor caste. Many of Akon’s big money-making ideas were absurdist bullshit, but when it came to the business of popular music, the man was a professional. The public never knew too much about Akon, but the hits kept coming.

By the time Akon first reached the top of the Hot 100, he already had plenty of hits. Akon had been circling that #1 spot like a shark, but songs from larger-than-life celebrity types kept blocking his tracks out. That was never Akon. Akon was just the slightly enigmatic guy who made hits. Finally, Akon arrived at the top spot in the closing days of 2006, and he did it with a simple and hypnotic track about the things that he wanted to do to a stripper. Akon almost gave that song away to somebody else. If not for a nightclub shooting, the Florida rapper Plies might’ve been the one to release “I Wanna Love You.” But Akon took the song back for himself, found a more stable guest star, and took the track all the way to the top. Plies couldn’t even be mad. At the time, nobody was in any position to question Akon’s hitmaking instincts.

He sees you winding and grinding up on that pole. He knows you see him looking at you, and you already know. Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam — that’s his real name — was born in St. Louis, Missouri, though that city doesn’t exactly play a large role in his biography. (When Akon was born, Vicki Lawrence’s “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” was the #1 song in America.) Akon’s father was Mor Thiam, a Senegalese-born jazz-funk drummer who taught college in East St. Louis and who released the album Ndende Safarra in 1974, when Akon was a year old. That album got Thiam an invitation to perform at Richard Nixon’s White House, which is weird to think about.

During his childhood, Akon spent a few years moving back and forth between the US and Senegal, and he learned to play a bunch of instruments. Eventually, Akon’s family settled in New Jersey. When Akon was a teenager, his parents moved to Atlanta for a teaching job, and they left Akon and his brother in Jersey City. As a young man, Akon dabbled in music. You can hear Akon’s voice on reggae greats Sly & Robbie’s remix of “Fu-Gee-La,” the single that local rap heroes the Fugees released in 1995. (“Fu-Gee-La” peaked at #29, and it’s the Fugees’ highest-charting single as a group. Both Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean have already appeared in this column.)

In the mid-’90s, Akon was signed to EastWest Records under the name A-Kon for a little while. The young A-Kon sang and rapped, and he released his debut single “Operations Of Nature” in 1996. That song didn’t go anywhere, and Akon wouldn’t release another single until eight years later. Instead, Akon followed other pursuits. In the late ’90s, Akon started getting into legal trouble, though the exact nature of that trouble is not a settled matter.

When Akon first got famous, he had a whole backstory. To hear Akon tell it, he’d been the ringleader of a car-theft crew that operated in both New Jersey and Atlanta. At various points, Akon has said that he owned multiple chop shops. Eventually, Akon’s accomplices ratted him out, and he spent a few years in prison. That’s the version of the story that Akon told in interviews, the one that he sings about on the remix to Cham’s 2006 dancehall anthem “Ghetto Story.” (A different “Ghetto Story” remix with Alicia Keys is Cham’s only Hot 100 hit; it peaked at #77.) In 2008, though, the Smoking Gun published a long exposé on Akon’s criminal past, reporting that Akon had been arrested a bunch of times, including for car theft, but that his longest prison stay was five months.

If Akon really did fabricate pieces of his backstory, he wouldn’t be the only successful musician ever to do so. That’s a pretty normal thing to do. By all accounts, Akon really was locked up, even if he wasn’t locked up for as long as he claimed to be. In any case, Akon sang the hook on “What Must I Do,” a 2000 track from the teenage Atlanta rapper Lil Zane. (Lil Zane’s only Hot 100 hit, the 2000 112 collab “Callin’ Me,” peaked at #21.) The Lil Zane connection brought Akon to the attention of Atlanta manager Devyne Stephens, and Stephens got Akon signed to former Loud Records boss Steve Rifkind’s Universal imprint SRC.

Akon broke through with a song all about being stuck in prison. His first SRC single was 2004’s “Locked Up.” Akon sang about questioning his past sins while guest Styles P rapped about using toothbrushes as shanks and rhymed “the clothes is orange” with “the food is garbage.” (Styles’ highest-charting single as lead artist is 2002’s “Good Times,” which peaked at #22. Styles also rapped on Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny From The Block,” also from 2002, which peaked at #3. It’s a 7.) Akon produced “Locked Up” himself, and he used the sound of a clanking-shut jail door as part of the beat. He sang the whole track in a high, keening tenor — a bit like R. Kelly, but with no churchy R&B affectations in his delivery. Akon sounded thoughtful and downbeat — at least a bit like someone who might be taking stock of his life after some dark turns and bad decisions.

“Locked Up” resonated. I have a vivid memory of waiting for the bus in Baltimore while another guy sang his own version of “Locked Up” to the world at large: “I was locked up, but they let me out! They fucked up when they let me out!” I made sure not to sit too close to that guy. But “Locked Up” also worked for those of us who never spent any time in prison, and it peaked at #8 on the Hot 100. (It’s a 7.) Akon followed that single with the much sillier “Lonely,” which he built on a chipmunked-up sample of Bobby Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely” and which peaked at #4. (It’s a 6.) Ultimately, Akon’s criminal backstory mattered less than his ability to write catchy, lightweight pop songs like that one.

Akon’s debut album Trouble went platinum. Over the next few years, Akon proved himself a versatile collaborator. He could sing a sticky hook on another artist’s song without hogging any of the attention. Thanks to that gift, he was in high demand, and he guested on singles from a wide array of artists: the Beatnuts, Baby Bash, Beenie Man. Most importantly, Akon sang the hook on Atlanta street-rap hero Young Jeezy’s 2005 hit “Soul Survivor,” which peaked at #4 and which remains Jeezy’s highest-charting single. (“Soul Survivor” is an 8. As a guest, Jeezy will eventually appear in this column.) Akon’s “Soul Survivor” appearance was both tough and smooth — a rare combination that was squarely in the mid-’00s zeitgeist.

Akon’s sophomore album Konvicted got a big rollout. By that point, Akon had enough pull to get a guest-verse from Eminem, an artist who’s already been in this column once and who rarely collaborated with people who didn’t come from his camp. Unfortunately, this was pill-addled, hitting-bottom Eminem, and his version of a paychecking club-rap verse is just truly unpleasant on every level. The phrase “lookin’ like one of them Puddycat Dolls” still wanders into my head uninvited every couple of months. It is unwelcome. “Smack That” would already be a pretty bad Akon song without that verse, but the verse drags it down substantially. Still, “Smack That” was a genuine hit that peaked at #2, kept out of the top spot only by Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack.” (“Smack That” is a 3.)

Instead, the biggest hit from Konvicted turned out to be the song that Akon almost gave away. At the time, Akon was writing and producing a lot of songs for other artists, and he really wanted to work with the grizzled Miami rap veteran Trick Daddy. (Trick Daddy’s highest-charting single, the 2004 Lil Jon/Twista collab “Let’s Go,” peaked at #7. It’s an 8.) Akon came up with a track that he called “I Wanna Fuck You,” and he emailed it to Trick Daddy. In an interview with Sway last year, Akon said that his brother couldn’t believe he was giving that song away, but Akon had already given Trick Daddy his word that he’d send him a track. Trick Daddy never got the song. Instead, Plies, another rapper on Trick Daddy’s Slip-N-Slide label, went into Akon’s email, intercepted the track, and recorded his own version.

Plies, a guttural goon-rapper from Fort Meyers, was still building himself a mixtape buzz at the time; he wouldn’t officially release anything until 2007. Plies leaked his version of “I Wanna Fuck You” to pirate radio stations in Florida, which would’ve been a shrewd business decision if things had actually worked out. Akon didn’t have any idea that Plies had recorded over his track until he found out that the Plies version was already a regional hit. Akon could’ve cleared the Plies version for release, but fate intervened.

In July of 2006, Plies was performing at a nightclub in Gainesville, and his set went too long, so the soundman cut the mic off. Plies and his crew reacted badly. Members of Plies’ entourage reportedly fired guns into the audience indiscriminately, wounding five people. Some of the members of Plies’ crew, including his brother, were arrested for attempted murder, and they spent years in prison. Plies himself was arrested on a weapons charge, which was later dropped.

Akon has never said that the shooting influenced his decision to take “I Wanna Fuck You” back from Plies, but that’s what he did. Akon ultimately felt bad for snatching the song back, and he made good by producing and appearing on Plies’ 2007 single “Hypnotized,” which peaked at #14. (Plies’ highest-charting single, the 2008 Ne-Yo collab “Bust It Baby (Part 2)” peaked at #7. It’s a 4.)

Akon already had a hit song, but that song needed a different rapper. Akon found a professional to help him out. Two years earlier, Snoop Dogg had gone to #1 with “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” Snoop was a familiar face from movies and TV commercials, and the world had basically forgotten that he’d beat his own murder charge a decade earlier. Snoop recorded his verses over Akon’s track and sent it back to Akon within a few hours, and Akon rushed the single out. “I Wanna Fuck You” — retitled “I Wanna Love You” in the most obvious radio edit of all time — came out in October 2006, a month before Akon released his Konvicted album.

It would be a mistake to look for much lyrical depth in an Akon song. “I Wanna Love You” is about seeing a stripper and wanting to have sex with her. This was also, more or less, the idea behind “Smack That.” It’s a pretty evergreen pop-music topic, and it doesn’t exactly lend itself to much interesting thought. On “I Wanna Love You,” Akon seems to think that there is something vaguely forbidden about this impulse: “I know you see me looking at you, and you already know: I wanna fuck you.” Well, yeah, she definitely knows it. That’s the point of the entire strip-club economy.

It’s possible to dismiss a song like “I Wanna Love You” simply because it’s a song about wanting to have sex with a stripper. The radio-edit version of the song doesn’t really change that, since “I Wanna Love You” is obviously not a song about any conventional kind of romantic love. Akon is not sitting in this strip club with hearts in his eyes. He doesn’t want to take this girl out for a candlelight dinner. The addition of the word “love” isn’t fooling anyone; the “fuck” is still implied. If you have no room in your heart for songs about wanting to fuck strippers, then “I Wanna Love You” isn’t going to do anything for you. But if you allow for the idea that “horny for strippers” is one of the many emotional states that can serve as a legit starting point for a good pop song, there’s a lot to like about “I Wanna Love You.”

It’s the production, mostly. Akon always understood his own voice, and he understood the kind of track that could best highlight that voice. Akon’s self-produced “I Wanna Love You” beat is a clean and oddly moody synth-bouce thing. The drum track is direct and stripped-down, full of handclaps and 808 hits. Akon doesn’t add too much to that — an eerie tingly-bells music-box riff, a few wobbly keyboard tones. It’s a propulsive and melodic track. The instrumental reminds me of ’80s electro, of Latin freestyle, maybe even of a slowed-down variant of Miami bass. (Maybe that’s why Akon wanted to give the song to Trick Daddy in the first place.)

You won’t find a whole lot of substance to the words that Akon sings over that beat, but you might find some substance in the way that he sings them. Akon’s tone is plaintive and oddly sad. He sings in a high-lonesome warble that doesn’t really come from American R&B. Instead, you can hear echoes of dancehall and African pop in his delivery. In the way that Akon’s voice pairs with that chilly electro beat, I also hear just a touch of early-’80s Phil Collins — another guy who might plausibly be bummed-out in a strip club.

Akon’s “I Wanna Love You” hook is a sinuous earworm, and he really sinks his teeth into the phrase “winding and grinding.” On the verses, Akon splits the difference between singing and rapping. He tries to make a case for himself as a romantic prospect, mostly talking about his money, but his lines all come out in a downcast yip: “You know my pedigree/ Ex-dealer, used to move ‘phetamines.” I’ve never heard anyone else chirp the word “‘phetamines” with that level of dejected need, though maybe that’s just because I’ve never heard anyone else chirp the word “‘phetamines” at all. I’ve never even heard anyone else say the word “‘phetamines.” That’s not really a thing that people say.

Snoop Dogg’s verses on “I Wanna Love You” are total autopilot material: “If you pick me, then I’ma pick on you/ D-O-double-G, and I’m here to put this dick on you.” But Snoop raps those verses with a smooth authority that’s pretty far removed from Plies’ raspy drawl. Snoop doesn’t sound horny, exactly; he sounds calm and collected and matter-of-fact. For someone who’s constantly rapping about sex, Snoop always kind of sounds like he could take it or leave it. Maybe that makes him more attractive. He’s not needy. I can picture someone deciding to fuck Snoop because it’d be fun to hang out with him before and after and because they could be safe in the knowledge that Snoop would never get clingy. Snoop always had an easy time adding a few quick lines to a crossover pop song; we’ll see him play that role in this column again.

“I Wanna Love You” is a minor work — one half-sung club-rap hit in an era full of half-sung club-rap hits. Any personality in the song, like the sadness that I hear in Akon’s voice, might be in there sheerly by accident. It’s not an iconic song, and I don’t often encounter it in the wild, as I do with so many of the tracks that have been appearing in this column lately. But “I Wanna Love You” still does its job. It attacks a rote, tired subject with just enough melodic savvy and cinematic sweep to keep it from sinking into nothingness, and that hook could really get stuck in your head.

This was a big time for sticky Akon hooks. The success of Akon’s smooth, mechanized style would have implications that went beyond Akon himself. In 2005, Akon launched his Konvict Muzik imprint, and a couple of the artists who he signed will have huge impacts on this column. And we’re not yet done with Akon himself; he’ll be back in this column before long.

GRADE: 6/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s the absolutely ghastly MySpace-ass pop-punk cover of “I Wanna Love You” that the Maine released in 2008:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: With their 2012 track “Summer Breeze (You Wanna Fuck Me),” the weirdo psych-folk duo CocoRosie remade “I Wanna Love You” from the perspective of the woman winding and grinding up on that pole. Here’s their version:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Puerto Rican rappers Alex Rose and Myke Towers’ sampling “I Wanna Love You” on their 2018 single “Darte”:

(Myke Towers’ highest-charting single, the 2020 Ozuna/Karol G collab “Caramelo,” peaked at #76.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Spend money like it don’t mean nothin’ and buy the book here.

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