The Number Ones

April 7, 2007

The Number Ones: Akon’s “Don’t Matter”

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.

Pop stardom is a demanding job. To maintain pop stardom, you obviously have to make hit songs, but you have to do more than that. You have to project a larger-than-life image. You have to construct a whole live spectacle around that image, and then you have to take that spectacle on tour. You have to get the world involved in your personal narrative. It’s a lot. Every once in a while, though, we’ll get someone who cranks out a lot of hit songs without fulfilling any other pop-star obligations. When that happens, you have to ask: Is this person a pop star? And by extension, what does pop stardom even mean? In 2007, most of those questions revolved around Akon.

For a while there, Akon was a human hit machine. Akon already had a pretty hefty number of big songs before he finally took his Snoop Dogg collab “I Wanna Love You” to #1 at the end of 2006. Around the same time, Akon also served as the driving force behind another smash from former Number Ones artist Gwen Stefani. Akon co-wrote, co-produced, and sang on Stefani’s “The Sweetest Escape,” and that song peaked at #2 just as 2006 was ending. (It’s a 5.)

After all those hits, it became pretty clear that Akon was entering into something resembling an imperial phase. But can you have an imperial phase if nobody knows anything about you? Akon’s whole thing was malleability. He could appear on a track with just about anyone, and he could bend his voice to fit that artist’s style. Akon wrote and produced most of his tracks himself, but he rarely imposed his own personality on them. Instead, his voice was sleek and airless — distinctive, maybe, but not exactly memorable. And Akon was making all those hits without doing any of the world-building that usually comes along with pop stardom.

At the time, Akon’s pop-chart contemporaries — Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado, Fergie — had all grown up in public in one way or another. People knew things about them. Akon had his own backstory, but those tales of car theft and imprisonment seemed distant and uncanny. It wasn’t exactly a surprise when the news came out that a lot of those stories were probably fabrications. It fit the pattern. Akon kept the world at a distance.

In some ways, Akon was the perfect hitmaker for the ringtone era. Akon was a high voice cooing out simple melodies over simple backing tracks. If you bought an Akon song as a ringtone, you didn’t need to know his face or his personal narrative. You didn’t even need to hear the whole song. You just needed to hear that hook floating through the air, chilly and frictionless and oddly comforting. That was certainly the case with Akon’s second and final chart-topper “Don’t Matter,” a pleasant and efficient piece of nothingness that left very little aftertaste. “Don’t Matter” was there, and then it was gone. It didn’t matter.

“Don’t Matter” is the closing track on Akon’s sophomore album Konvicted. Akon isn’t a rapper, but most of Konvicted puts Akon in the context of that era’s big-money rap music. Akon teams up with rappers — Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Styles P — and he sings about being tough and cool and rich and horny. There’s not a whole lot of vulnerability on display on that album. “Don’t Matter” breaks away from all of that, offering up what appears to be a simple and plaintive love song. In his New York Times review of Konvicted, the great Kelefa Sanneh wrote that the song “sounds as if it were designed to be performed at an outdoor stadium, with a full orchestra and a children’s choir.”

If you look at the “Don’t Matter” songwriting credits, you’ll notice a name that’s both surprising and familiar: Bob Marley, who died a full quarter-century before “Don’t Matter” came out. (Bob Marley’s only Hot 100 hit during his lifetime was 1976’s “Roots, Rock, Reggae,” which peaked at #51. “Don’t Matter” follows Eric Clapton’s “I Shot The Sheriff” as the second #1 hit with a Bob Marley writing credit.) Marley got that posthumous credit on “Don’t Matter” because Akon and his co-writer, regular collaborator Anthony “Tony Love” Lawson, used the “we gon’ fight” refrain from “Zimbabwe,” a song that Bob Marley And The Wailers released in 1979. But Marley was singing about an anti-colonialist uprising, while Akon was singing about people gossiping about his love life.

Maybe Akon should’ve handed out another “Don’t Matter” songwriting credit, though I don’t think his omission will make anyone too upset. When “Don’t Matter” was big, plenty of people noted that Akon’s cadence seemed to be taken directly from R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix),” a song that peaked at #2 in 2003. (That one doesn’t get a rating.) I’ve already written too much about R. Kelly in this space. I don’t want to talk about him anymore. Let’s just move on.

“Don’t Matter” is a song about wanting to be with someone even when the whole world wants to see your relationship fail. If you give the song a close lyrical read, it seems like the whole world might have a reason for wanting that relationship to fail. On the first verse, Akon sings about the challenges that the couple faces: “Men steady comin’ after you/ Women steady comin’ after me/ Seems like everybody wanna go for self and don’t wanna respect boundaries.” There’s a bit of tetchy frustration in Akon’s voice when he mentions those boundaries. What boundaries could he possibly mean? Akon answers that himself a second later: “I must admit there was a couple secrets I held inside/ Just know that I try to always apologize.” Ooh! Secrets!

Akon’s secrets aren’t all that interesting. On the second verse, Akon admits that he’s been acting “off the wall” lately: “Especially towards you, putting girls before you/ And they watching everything I been doing, just to hurt you.” When you really think about those “Don’t Matter” lyrics — something that I definitely never did when the song was actually popular — it becomes clear that this is a guy trying to sing a love song without making any commitments. He cheats, sure, but he really loves you. These people warning you to stay away? They’re just jealous! The things that people are saying? “Most of it just ain’t true.” Some of it might be true, but not most of it. Akon is a confirmed bachelor who reportedly has six kids by three women, so it makes sense that “Don’t Matter” would be that guy’s version of a love song.

I never thought about those lyrics when “Don’t Matter” was omnipresent because “Don’t Matter” is not a song that demands any kind of lyrical focus. The music radiates simple, starry-eyed sweetness, even if the actual words don’t fully match the sentiment. The song’s most memorable lyrics aren’t even words. On the intro, Akon lets loose with a series of lovely hoots: “Ohhhh! Oooooh-waaa-ohhh! Ohhh!” Underneath his voice, the music is simple and buoyant: a winding guitar playing an old-school chord progression, a simple drum-machine shuffle, a few synth-string stabs. (Akon’s co-writer Anthony Lawson plays the guitar.)

That music sighs contentedly. Its simplicity seems built for the ringtone era, but it evokes plenty of familiar things, from crossover-friendly dancehall to early-’60s soul to the R. Kelly song that I don’t want to talk about. A few months after “Don’t Matter,” a young kid took that style even further, singing just like Akon over a sample of an actual early-’60s soul hit. The resulting song will appear in this column pretty soon.

That musical simplicity works nicely with Akon’s voice. Akon is a truly unshowy singer. He made for a great collaborator because he could disappear into a song. He could sing a hook and yip out a catchy melody without taking any attention away from the song’s actual star. On “Don’t Matter,” that gift works for Akon, and it also works against him. There is no star of the track other than Akon, but Akon seems to be deflecting attention from himself. So the song just slides by, slippery and streamlined, calling no attention to itself.

I always liked Akon’s voice. As a singer, he’s never been showy or demonstrative. There’s a slight ache in his tone, and his barely-there accent connects him with whole generations of African pop music, though god knows he doesn’t sound anything like previous Senegalese stars like Youssou N’Dour or Baaba Maal. Instead, in the way he connects rap and R&B and dancehall and full-on pop music, Akon might’ve helped set a precedent for Afrobeats, the sound that’s become a global juggernaut in the past few years.

On “Don’t Matter,” Akon’s voice radiates a warmth and contentment that isn’t really there in his words. On the verses, his voice has a flexible bounce that reminds me of Southern rap. On the chorus, Akon sings straight through, reaching for Michael Jackson levels of universality. He doesn’t get all the way there, but I like the interplay between the squeaky backup vocals — I think it’s just Akon himself, spend up and pitch-shifted — and Akon’s lead. There’s very little substance to the song, but it glides by nicely. The video added to that sense of agreeable emptiness, with Akon and a pretty girl making eyes at each other all around some tropical paradise before dancing to a soca remix of “Don’t Matter” at a beach party. (Naturally, one of the partiers is Pitbull, an artist who will eventually appear in this column.)

Unfortunately, the simplicity of a song like “Don’t Matter” doesn’t really lend itself to repeated listens. Radio really hammered “Don’t Matter” hard that spring, and I got good and sick of it. Here’s me in May 2007, a month after “Don’t Matter” fell out of #1: “The next time I hear ‘Don’t Matter,’ someone’s getting karate-chopped in the neck, and I used to like that song.” (Don’t worry, I didn’t actually karate chop anyone in the neck.) The ringtone era made Akon, and it might’ve also been his undoing.

The rest of that year, Akon was truly inescapable. Around the time that “Don’t Matter” had its run on top, Akon sang the hook on “I Tried,” the comeback hit from former Number Ones artists Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. (“I Tried” peaked at #6. It’s a 5.) I preferred Akon’s ebullient but low-impact hook on DJ Khaled’s “We Takin’ Over,” an all-star posse cut that ended with an absolutely bonkers peak-era Lil Wayne verse. (That one peaked at #28. Khaled and Wayne will both appear in this column eventually.)

Konvicted was double platinum before “Don’t Matter” reached #1; it eventually went platinum six times over. By the end of the year, Akon released a deluxe edition of the album, and his tacked-on damage-control track “Sorry, Blame It On Me” peaked at #7. (It’s a 2.) The song isn’t really an apology, but Akon had reason to apologize. A few days after “Don’t Matter” hit #1, Akon was filmed dry-humping a girl while dragging her around the stage at a show in Trinidad. The girl turned out to be the 15-year-old daughter of a preacher. Akon claimed that he didn’t know the girl’s age, since the show was supposed to be 21+. Right-wing pundits sought to make an example out of Akon, and Verizon pulled its sponsorship of Gwen Stefani and Akon’s summer tour. But the tour still happened, and the hits kept coming.

Akon never got back to #1 after “Don’t Matter.” His next album, 2008’s Freedom, sold barely a fraction of what Konvicted had moved. “Right Now (Na Na Na),” its biggest single, only made it to #8. (It’s a 4.) That was Akon’s last top-10 hit as lead artist. In that lead-artist role, Akon has been entirely absent from the Hot 100 since 2010, when his non-album single “Angel” stalled at #56.

By that point, though, Akon really didn’t need to keep making hits as a solo artist. For one thing, Akon had already invested in a South African diamond mine, and he insisted that blood diamonds didn’t really exist. Akon had also become a music mogul. He started his own Konvict Muzik imprint in 2004, and his first major discovery was T-Pain, an artist who will soon appear in this column. Akon was technically the headliner of Hot 97’s Summer Jam in 2007, but that show happened in a massive rainstorm, and I left the stadium before Akon performed. So did most of the crowd. The next year, T-Pain was on the Summer Jam bill, dressed like a candy cane and looking like a human cartoon character. When Akon came out to sing with T-Pain, he came off like a proud dad, but he did not look like a cartoon character. He was just some guy in a polo shirt. That year, T-Pain’s Akon collab “Bartender” peaked at #5. (It’s a 7.)

Later in 2008, another Akon protege conquered the charts. Her name was Lady Gaga, and we will see her in this column a whole bunch of times. Thanks to Gaga, Akon will appear in this column again as a songwriter. In 2009, Akon also got to #5 as a guest on “Dangerous,” the one big hit from Kardinal Offishall, a Toronto rapper signed to Konvict Muzik. (“Dangerous” is a 5.)

Akon managed one last big hit when he sang on the French DJ David Guetta’s 2010 track “Sexy Bitch,” which peaked at #5. (It’s a 5. David Guetta’s three highest-charting singles all peaked at #4: 2011’s “Without You” with Usher, the same year’s “Turn Me On” with Nicki Minaj, and 2022’s “I’m Good (Blue)” with Bebe Rexha. “Without You” is a 5, “Turn Me On” is a 3,” and “I’m Good (Blue)” is a 7. Shut up. I think it’s fun. Leave me alone.)

In 2010, Akon said that he could retire rich after signing Lady Gaga. That was probably true, but he didn’t retire. Akon went a decade without releasing an album, but he’s released three of them since 2019. Those albums haven’t been successful, but Akon remains hugely famous around the world. Akon has also found other lanes of business. In 2018, Akon launched his own cryptocurrency. He called it Akoin. Two years later, he announced plans to build Akon City, a crypto-fueled metropolis on a 2,000-acre plot in Senegal. A firm called KE International reportedly brought in $6 billion in investments to build this city. You’re not going to believe this, but construction hasn’t started yet. Who could’ve predicted that a pop singer’s crypto city in Senegal might be a gigantic scam?

Akon made a lot of hits, but he never truly became a pop star. I don’t think he wanted to become a pop star. Akon had other things in mind. Now that he’s joined the international society of sketchy rich weirdos, I feel comfortable forgetting all about him. Akon presumably won’t appear in this column again as an artist, but his proteges and aesthetic descendants will carry his sleek global pop forward in the years ahead. That foundation, at the very least, is solid.

GRADE: 5/10

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BONUS BEATS: In 2008, Fall Out Boy released an acoustic cover of “Don’t Matter,” and frontman Patrick Stump also threw in a bit of the song that I’d rather not discuss. Here’s that cover:

(Fall Out Boy’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race,” peaked at #2. It’s a 4.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kehlani singing the hook from “Don’t Matter” on her 2017 track “Undercover”:

(Kehlani’s highest-charting single as lead artist is 2016’s “Gangsta,” which peaked at #41. She also got to #28 as a guest on Cardi B’s “Ring” in 2018.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music, is out now via Hachette Books. Buy it here. If I sell enough copies, maybe I can build Tom City.

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