You don't quite know what to make of Kenna.
He's new on the scene -- a black man born in Ethiopia and raised in Virginia whose music is hard to peg. New wave sensibilities liven the mix; there's a smidgen of hip-hop energy, a drop of techno. And pop melodies abound on his debut, New Sacred Cow. He's not fond of photographs. Inside the CD booklet, there's a tack-sized shot of the guy covering his face. But you will miss it if you're just flipping through. He doesn't even appear in the video for "Hell Bent," the CD's first single.
Kenna is handsome, tall, lean. But there's nothing particularly "jiggy" or "cutting edge" about his appearance. No flash. Nothing that'll make you crane your neck to catch another look.
But Kenna's music, crackling with energy, will snatch your attention upon the initial listen. He'd rather you focus on his art, anyway.
"All music should be introspective," says Kenna, who's calling from his publicist's office in Los Angeles. "I've felt that artists in the last 10 years have gotten so self-consumed and not really saying anything that really means something or touches people. As for where my music comes from, I don't think it's scientific. The music just comes from the heart."
This summer, Kenna will be on MTV2's "You Hear It First Tour." The critical buzz circling the artist has been strong and generally positive since New Sacred Cow dropped on June 10. The 14-track set -- co-produced by the Neptunes' Chad "Chase" Hugo, Kenna's close pal -- is a potent cocktail of mostly '80s new wave and modern rock. Kenna's love of U2, the Cars and Depeche Mode fuels the idiosyncratic tunes. The plaintive, autobiographical lyrics of love's dizzying ride and personal growth were self-penned. In "Siren," Kenna sings: I live for my independence/live by my beliefs/yeah, I live with my intentions/careful falling for me ...
"The new sacred cow is control," says the 27-year-old artist. "It's about the rise of individualism. It's all related to the personal experiences, but the album is open. The meaning of life is to give, and we get back in return."
Kenna pauses for a moment. "Love is the truth. That's what I explored on the record pretty much."
The singer-keyboardist grew up in a solid upper-middle-class home near Virginia Beach, where it was like "living in molasses," he says. His pops, a Cambridge graduate, is a finance professor at Norfolk State; his mother owns a real estate company. Kenna's younger sister, Emerald, is in law school.
"I'm the black sheep of the family," he says, snickering. "Everybody else is a lawyer, a judge, NPR kinda people."
College just wasn't Kenna's thing. So he concentrated his energies on making music with his buddy Hugo. Kenna's alliance with the powerful Neptunes gave him the credibility to shop his demo around. And after Fred Durst heard the recording, he signed the artist to his Flawless label sight unseen.
Other than making genuine music, Kenna has other higher goals. In December, the dude plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. And he wants to get more involved in the politics of his native Ethiopia, where many of his relatives still reside. He looks to U2's fervently political front man, Bono, for inspiration. Ever since hearing the Irish band's classic Joshua Tree album in 1987, Kenna has a been a stone fan.
"All Bono does, man, is love and give," he says. "The Joshua Tree album is my inspiration for writing lyrics -- that, and the Beatles. Their lyrics were ambiguous enough for you to find your own meaning yourself."
Although it may be tough for him to easily find a niche with his category-defying album and nondescript look, Kenna is optimistic about his career -- and life in general.
"It's a great world we live in, man," he says. "There's so much to take in. Like Bono, my inspiration in life is to be a statesman; my calling is to be a musician."