Kenna: Facing the Gun

In this day and age you’d have to be insane to try putting an album out. Everything is expensive as hell, the fans are finicky, and most people will probably download it anyway. Even if you managed to get signed to a label that matters, there’s still a pretty good chance the whole thing will […]

In this day and age you’d have to be insane to try putting an album out. Everything is expensive as hell, the fans are finicky, and most people will probably download it anyway. Even if you managed to get signed to a label that matters, there’s still a pretty good chance the whole thing will wind up as an expensive mess that was a waste of a lot of time and money. Most of us have the good sense to give up on our dreams of being a rockstar before things get carried away, but luckily, some of us don’t. Kenna is the prime example of someone who probably should’ve just gotten a day job after the trying experience that was his first album, New Sacred Cow. It’s a long story, but short version is that the process of putting the album out didn’t go as well as it could have, so the album didn’t sell nearly as well as some say it should have.  What did go well, though, was the music. Produced entirely by Chad Hugo (the less conspicuous member of The Neptunes), the album was almost universally well-received by the press and the relatively few people who actually heard it. The gap between the album’s critical reception and commercial success was so great, that it even became a subject of debate outside of the music industry – most notably as a topic of discussion for a chapter of Blink, the best-selling book by New York Times writer Malcolm Gladwell. The nod in Gladwell’s book led to a lot of mainstream attention for Kenna as he prepared to release his second album, Make Sure They See My Face, but once again, getting the record on shelves was difficult to say the least, mostly due to a huge number of delays. The album is finally out and with the continued rise of The Neptunes and the increased attention from the mainstream media, one might expect that things will go better this time around. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t, but for better or for worse, Kenna doesn’t particularly care. He’s happy with the music and hopes you will be too; nothing else really Alternatives: Just about every artist has some issues with their label when it comes to getting their work out and promoted, but you’ve become something of a poster-boy for album delays. Do you feel your issues with the labels are actually worse than most or is something else holding you back?Kenna: Especially when you’re first starting out, there’s always gonna be delays getting things worked out or things aren’t worked out where it’s best for the album launch and the momentum. Especially when people care about you, they push the date because they want it to be successful, because they care about it and the want it to happen. I’m lucky enough, and it’s a weird thing to say that the delays are because my labels [Interscope] want for me to be successful. It sucks because I’d want the album out sooner than later, and I want my people to get the music, but at the same time… y’know; sh*t happens. For us, we did the video, and it wasn’t what we needed or what we expected. It took a lot of time to get to the point where we realized it wasn’t gonna work out and shot a new one.AHHA: Sure, but how much does promotion even matter for an artist like yourself? Wouldn’t it have been better to have something on the shelves to take advantage of the word-of-mouth you were getting all summer with Blink and such?Kenna: It’s six in one, half-dozen in the other. It might make sense for the record to come out early and let it simmer, or it might be the best thing to wait for that video to impact and get some momentum off of that. I don’t really know that math, y’know? I just know that the people who were deciding what do with the record actually gave a sh*t about the record. That’s the key to me. As long as they care about it and they’re really involved in the process, that’s all that matters to me. They’ve taken an “L” for me while I was out on the road to make sure that I’m successful on those levels too. As long as they’re into it and they’re [delaying the album] because they feel they can get a better presence, that’s on them.AHHA: How is the situation different now that you’re on Star Trak/Interscope instead of Columbia?Kenna: Interscope was always the right home for me. I went there before, but it was just a debacle, but in this case, it’s family. Pharrell and Chad have know me forever, they know me creatively, and they know my world. They know I’m critical, and that I think that I’m creating things for the future. They look to the future because that’s where they wanna live. It fits well together.AHHA: Given that you’ve known The Neptunes since before any of you were signed, why didn’t you just sign with them to begin with?Kenna: We grew up together; those are my boys and they’re also the people that I make music with, so I didn’t want it to be business as well. Also, I felt like…when you come from the same world [as someone successful], you want to come up on your own and not ride shirttails. My boys are doing well, so I don’t wanna just get on the bandwagon. I like to go about it by myself and have my hustle and figure out what I want to accomplish. At a certain point, not based on sales or financial success, but based on the creativity of my peers, we can look at each other and see I’ve got a spot on my shelf. They know how to make it happen on the business side that I don’t really want to deal with. That’s why it makes sense now when before it didn’t. I just wasn’t…call it my ego or whatever, but I always wanted to carry my own weight.AHHA: Does it bother you when people call your music weird since it doesn’t fit neatly into a genre?Kenna: It’s really common…it just shows the type of person that they are, because my music is pretty pop. I mean, it’s Hip-Hop and it’s rock mixed into one, but it leans on the side of pop. If you take that few seconds extra to really listen to it, you find yourself realizing that it’s not much different than what people already listen to, but because it’s presented with a unique sound and a unique person who doesn’t look like he sounds, it causes people to be like “What the?” It’s funny to me because…what do you want? Do you want it to be exactly what you expect every time? Will that make you feel better? Will that make you grow?AHHA: And plus, people like to say that they want something original but…Kenna: A lot of people want to be told what to love. My fans are people who actually want to find things, be a part of change and be a part of the future. Those are my fans. Inevitably, everyone else will fall in line with my fans, but at the end of the day, I know who my fans are. Those are the people I talk to on MySpace or when they come to my shows; those are my people.AHHA: So the title of this album is Make Sure They See My Face based on a conversation you had with Pharrell about getting your image out there more this time around… Kenna: [laughs] Yeah, before I even started that album, and it was six conversations, annoyingly at eleven o’clock in the morning every single day. It was the first thing he thought of in the morning like, “Yo, Kenna? Pharrell? You need to make sure they see your face, Kenna.” AHHA: But once again you’re not on the cover, your face is hidden in all the promo pictures, and you wore a hat and glasses to the VMAs with Pharrell and the Clipse. I understand the artistic side of wanting to keep your anonymity, but do you think that you’re instigating the difficulties you have getting your music out by not being willing to “play the game” the way that the labels would prefer?Kenna: Maybe…maybe. If I wasn’t this person, though, who consciously opposed what’s going on around him and was contradictory, then there’d be nothing to talk about. I’d be just like everything else you’ve got on your desk. I’d just be another rapper or R&B singer. I’d be the indie-rock dude that sells four hundred thousand records but you may not respect. I make so much effort to be strong with my presence in new and different ways so that people realize it’s about the music. Listen to it; if you love the music, then you love me. Maybe I am contributing to the drama, but I think people are finally starting to realize why. Up until now, I’ve gotten people to pay attention to one thing, and that’s music. I want you to focus on the world I’m trying to create.AHHA: The first album was produced by Chad Hugo entirely, but Pharrell was involved on some tracks this time around. How does the process change with him involved as opposed to just you and Chad? Kenna: It’s not much different. Pharrell knows how I work with Chad and he just added to it. He knows he can come with his elements, and I’ll come with my elements and write my own thing and we’ll work it out together. It’s a real collaboration between him and I, because he respects me and I respect him and the visions that he has. He’s usually reaching into an oblivion that I don’t know about, and I’m happy to take that on board because to a certain extent, he knows that I’m reaching into something that he can’t get to. That’s what “Say Goodbye to Love” and “Loose Wires” are about – a real meshing of our worlds. It turned out so great and he provided an element that was missing to that album.AHHA: In addition, you did some work with both Justin Timberlake and ?uestlove while recording the album. Does having these kinds of well respected, high-profile guests make you feel more optimistic about the performance of the album?Kenna: We’re friends as well so it doesn’t take a lot for them to be on my records. I don’t really count on their…like I said with the other thing, I don’t ride shirttails. I ask people to be part of my projects for specific reasons – because I believe they can add something specific to what I’m creating, not because it’ll add to my marketing. Though… that is the [way it works], isn’t it? Still, I’m just not that kid at the end of the day.AHHA: Compared to the first record, this one is a little more upbeat and dance-y. Was that a conscious decision?Kenna: The things on the first album were about my search for happiness. I’m a dude who’s just trying to find myself and trying to find how I can impact the world around me and try to add to the world that’s given me life. This album is about happiness from the outside in. That’s my mindset; I didn’t necessarily try to make it the big banger album that everyone can get their heads around and fit into a specific marketplace. I’d be lying if I didn’t think about it being more upbeat and that more people might be into it, but they might not either, so I decided I should just do whatever felt right to me and whatever my spirit was telling me to do. Otherwise it’s not worth anything.I’m an artist in all aspects of the word, and I work very hard to be something that’ll be respected in 20 years instead of being an artist for today and trying to be famous. I do see the relevance of it, because I want to be involved and be altruistic to the world and having a bigger stage helps that. Still, I can only do my best work if I’m allowed to do it, and sometimes that’ll be really pop and hit home but… AHHA: Yeah, and you never can tell anyway.Kenna: You can’t! I mean, unless you’re Kanye who just knows…AHHA: And he can do that now, but there was a time when he couldn’t be so sure either. Kenna: Exactly. I mean…I don’t wanna know. I wanna make great sh*t and just be surprised when everyone loves it as much as I do.