Kenna wasn't the only one baffled by the commercial failure of his debut, 2003's New Sacred Cow. The category-defying singer-songwriter released one of the most critically lauded pop albums of that year. Several reviews proclaimed his music - a kinetic synth-based fusion of hip-hop-friendly beats awash with nervy punk-rock textures and grand melodies recalling U2 - the future of pop.
But apparently music buyers didn't get the hype. The CD only sold about 50,000 copies, and Columbia Records, Kenna's label, soon dropped him. Drained and frustrated, the alt-rock-pop artist, who was born in Ethiopia and raised in Virginia, took time off.
He felt the need for spiritual rejuvenation and, to clear his head, Kenna attempted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in early 2004. But he became ill during the climb, and the sulfur-based altitude medication he took only made him sicker. Turns out, he's allergic to sulfur. The derailed mountain-climbing experience served as a great metaphor for the way his musical career had panned out.
"I probably could have made it to the top had I not taken the medicine," says Kenna, who plays Rams Head Live tomorrow night. "So the lesson learned: Pay attention to your life and see what you're adding that keeps you from the top of your mountain."
In other words: To thine own self be true. And on New Sacred Cow, Kenna (last name: Zemedkun) didn't feel the record really reflected who he was. So on his much-delayed sophomore album - Make Sure They See My Face, released by Interscope this month - the performer made few compromises. There are hardly any concessions to sounds thickening airwaves these days. With production overseen by Kenna and his old high-school pals Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes, the music still zips in and out of musical categories.
"Music should never be judged in the first place; it should be felt," says Kenna, who's calling while traveling to a gig in Chicago. "It comes from a 100 percent honest place - at least for me. Right now as a society, we come from a place where so many people are an amalgamation, and music morphs. But we're still judging it by these strict boundaries, which is why the industry is in the shape it's in."
Kenna's struggles in the restrictive music industry were even chronicled in a best-selling book. In 2005's Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell devoted an entire chapter to the artist's conundrum. The New Yorker staff writer highlighted how Kenna's shifting music didn't neatly fit into programming categories. It also didn't help matters that the singer-songwriter avoided traditional promotion, obscuring his face in posters and choosing not to appear in videos.
The tongue-in-cheek title of the new album plays with the idea of how image-driven pop music has long become. Kenna also dismisses the idea that his race had anything to do with the fact that his alt-rock musical fusion was largely ignored by the mainstream.
"I don't think it had anything to do with my race, because most people had never seen my face," he says. "It had more to do with the hybrids on the record and pushing what's heard all the time on the radio. I don't think people are ready for that."
On Make Sure They See My Face, Kenna dissolves boundaries, but the music is still sprinkled with familiar elements of modern rock and David Bowie-style '80s dance-punk. Unlike the 2003 debut, the new CD is more cohesive with enough melodic pull and rhythmic thrust to garner mainstream attention.
Kenna's clarion, Bono-influenced vocals swell and soar, pushing the music forward. Catchy hooks abound, as exemplified on the punchy first single, "Say Goodbye To Love," and the squishy groover, "Loose Wires/Blank Radio," whose tabla intro sounds similar to "Milkshake," Kelis' ubiquitous 2003 smash.
In promoting his music this time around, Kenna is taking his own advice and making sure people see more of him. He has done lecture tours with Gladwell and appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He has been profiled on National Public Radio, and in July, he opened the New Jersey portion of the Live Earth concert.
"It's hard to make something sonically new but accepted," Kenna says. "I want to make something big. I want my music heard in arenas. The only way to do that is to be connected with the world."
See Kenna at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place, tomorrow night. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $16 in advance and $18 the day of the show. Call 410-244-8856 or go to ramsheadlive.com.