During a recent NPR story on Kenna—part of Interscope’s months-long marketing blitz for his new album—one fan said the artist is “choosing to diversify what black music means,” which goes a long way toward explaining what psychology journalist Malcolm Gladwell termed “Kenna’s Dilemma” in his book Blink. By MTV standards, a black guy in a hoodie automatically makes “black music,” even though you’d be hard-pressed to name one non-white influence on Kenna’s first album, New Sacred Cow, which appropriated the new wave of Depeche Mode and made it seamlessly, gloriously modern. Maybe too modern for a music culture still eerily divided along racial lines: Note how the NPR reporter introduces Kenna via Gladwell’s bestselling book, or that her very first descriptor for his music is the misleading “hip-hop,” while the more accurate “house” and “new wave” follow.
The problem is not that Kenna sounds unlike anything else but that he’s not what people expect or even want in a pop artist; in other words, it’s all about image. Which makes it all the more fitting that his sophomore effort is called Make Sure They See My Face, an obvious bid for the kind of commercial, artistic, and personal acknowledgment he, frankly, deserves. On the album’s cover, two outstretched hands—are they black? Are they white?—form the letter “K,” the first of many ways in which Kenna feeds his self-mythology. The opening track doubles as an introduction of sorts, in case you didn’t get him the first time: “Put your difference, sedation to rest/There’s nothing, nothing to medicate/Let the rush of the spirit find me.”
“Maybe I’ve just been a little schizophrenic,” Kenna conesses on “Blind Radio,” but at least in terms of packaging, Make Sure They See My Face provides the most coherent image of the artist yet. At the risk of alienating whatever fanbase he has, Interscope pitches Kenna to urban club bangers looking for a hot beat. The single “Say Goodbye to Love,” as co-written by Pharrell with a video directed by Hype Williams, is Kenna at his “safest”; the drum loops, bleeps, and hollers are still there but they sound faint and half-hearted. Kenna’s MySpace tagline says, “I will not be what you expect…ever,” but for the first time he sounds routine. It’s hard to take Kenna seriously on “Loose Wires”—no doubt channeling Justin Timberlake—when he sings to his imaginary hoochie mama, “Put your hand on mine/And we’ll have some fun.”
There’s no getting past the fact that the oft-delayed Make Sure They See My Face feels like a compromised work. The Neptunes know Kenna has talent; they’re just looking for a way to sell it. If so, then at least the formula is tried and true. Everything about the album is impeccably produced, from the sonic explosions of “Out of Control (State of Emotion)” to the soulful trip-hop bassline of “Better Wise Up.” You can imagine “Face the Gun,” Kenna’s most overtly political track, thumping in some distant Baghdad nightclub, at once energizing and dispiriting: “This is the testimony/Of the young at war/Dwelling on the conflict/Thinking maybe tomorrow’ll never come.” If “Say Goodbye to Love” is Kenna at his most contrived, this is his most direct expression, when his simple, blunt language turns into pop poetry. In the end, Interscope and Pharrell have the right idea but the wrong approach; Kenna doesn’t have to be something he’s not—he just needs to make sure they see his best face.