In his 2005 best-selling book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell devoted a chapter to the marketing efforts surrounding Kenna Zemedkun, an iconoclastic Ethiopian-American musician. "Kenna is the sort of person who is constantly at odds with your expectations, and that is both one of the things that make him so interesting and one of the things that have made his career so problematic," wrote Gladwell.
On Kenna's just-released second album, Make Sure They See My Face, the two continue their dialogue. "You seem a little all over the place. Is there any reason for that?" Gladwell asks the 29-year-old Kenna.
"That's a good question. I think maybe I'm just a little schizophrenic," answers Kenna in a computerized drawl.
At that moment, "Say Goodbye to Love," one of the funkiest singles of the year, drops in. Staccato bass lines interplay with bass-drum kicks that seem to bust holes out of the speaker. A light, melodic keyboard wafts over it all: the familiar sound of superstar production duo the Neptunes. "Just say goodbye to love," sings Kenna in a stylish croon reminiscent of Bryan Ferry and the Cure's Robert Smith. "I feel like I'm nowhere."
On the surface, Kenna is mourning the demise of a romance. But he's actually reprising that conversation with Gladwell. "Maybe I am a little schizophrenic. Maybe you won't understand what I'm trying to do," Kenna says during a phone interview from Los Angeles. "We all want to feel like we fit into a certain category, and feel like we fit in somewhere. But the fact is it's all right if you feel like you're nowhere."
Kenna illustrates what happens to critics' darlings who neither become cultish media sensations such as MIA, the British performer who regularly tops year-end lists; nor blossom into mainstream stars such as Feist, the Canadian singer with the iPod TV commercial. His 2003 debut, New Sacred Cow, drew great reviews, and his single "Freetime" drew a nomination at the MTV Video Music Awards for Breakthrough Video. Somehow, however, it didn't pop.
New Sacred Cow was executive-produced by Neptunes' producer Chad Hugo, and released on Flawless, a Sony subsidiary owned by Fred Durst. At the time it was released, the Neptunes dominated the music industry with hits such as Pharrell Williams' "Frontin'," Jay-Z's "Change Clothes" and Kelis' "Milkshake." Kenna doesn't have the star power of a Jay-Z, but he's not a quirky Neptunes side project, either.
"I don't ride coattails," says Kenna, who first met the duo while they were teenage musicians in Virginia Beach, "before they blew up." He describes their relationship as a full-fledged musical partnership, not just a producer-for-hire arrangement. "I don't really watch their process with every artist they work with. With me, they have to be honest, and they have to come with something that they've never come with before," he says. The Neptunes association, however, probably helped Kenna land a new recording contract after the Flawless/Sony deal floundered. Hugo also produced Make Sure They See My Face, which is being released by Capitol/EMI.
When asked to cite his influences, Kenna's list includes Talking Heads, Jimi Hendrix, U2, Michael Jackson and David Bowie. "I try to make it so that every song has 10 influences. For one second you may think it's the Cure influencing me, and then the next second it's the Clash, the third second it's the Police, and the fourth second it's Weezer," he says. For example, the new album's "Out of Control" starts out with a glam-rock stomp, and then flips over into keyboard-heavy funk rock. Hip-hop-heavy beats underline his classic pop sensibilities.
"I get to make whatever music I want in whatever way I want to make it. ... It's a very freeing experience. And I work with the best producers in the world," Kenna says. "I may go down in flames, but I'm going to go down in flames doing what I do best."