Kenna Biography

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Kenna biography | Reviewer: | 12/10/2007

The first rule of understanding Kenna is to really believe him when he says his name means "to get what you want." A couple years after completing his debut record-the interim hallmarked by his own fittingly monumental climb to Mount Kilimanjaro to "find "himself"-Kenna is here again to take back his name.

Kenna Zemedkun, 29, was born in Addis Ababa. His family migrated to Virginia Beach, Virginia, where he first fell deep in love with American music, specifically U2's Joshua Tree, an album that would forever shape his sonic aesthetic. For many years he struggled to find himself, working odd jobs and attending college. Until in his late teens he returned to his first love: music. With high school classmate "Chase" Chad Hugo-one half of production powerhouse The Neptunes-engineering and co writing the material, the demo got to Flawless Records where he was signed without so much as a face-to-face meeting. New Sacred Cow came out humbly in 2003 on Columbia Records to substantial critical acclaim, a loyal underground fan base, and millions of online downloads and file sharing. Two videos (of singles "Freetime" and "Hell Bent") enjoyed heavy rotation on MTV2, leading to two MTV video noms for Breakthrough Video. After an opening slot on Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan's solo tour, and several tour dates with No Doubt, Kenna found his identity caught somewhere nebulous, halfway between the weird-science underground and the gloss-and-finish mainstream. A few years ago, the entertainment industry, much less commercial radio, may well not have been ready for Kenna to bust out with an essentially New Wave record, particularly one that was embedded with influences so eclectic it spanned everything from synth pop to punk rock to hip hop to electronica. A point that was made most convincingly by author and marketing guru, Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2005 best-selling book Blink, where he devoted an entire chapter to this subject entitled "Kenna's Dilemma".

Ask production impresario Pharrell Williams what his old friend and colleague Kenna evokes for him and you'll get "the world will be singing songs of honesty along with audiences in cellphone-lit stadiums…"

Indeed Make Sure They See My Face (FACE) is the long-awaited follow-up experiment, co produced by Hugo and this time featuring select tracks from the other Neptune, Williams. When East Village Radio VJ Mark Ronson played the first single "Out of Control" on his "Authentic Shit" show, the internet underground was set a-buzz; when it served as the soundtrack to the recent Sony PSP commercials his growing mainstream cred enjoyed a serious catapulting. Then there's the album itself-fresher than ever, cultivating a stream of truly future sonics with ample homage to past ripples in rock and soul, the Kenna sound feels grown into, comfortable, true. Less dark than the debut, Hugo explains the sound they came up with this time around as "artful, dynamic, otherworldly and catchy. Something that is needed right now. It's progressive music." FACE veers more on the up-tempo, with several dance tracks that showcase The Neptunes's street sleight-of-hand theatrics alongside Kenna's lothario-dark-rock wailing melodics. The dizzying "Daylight" is jump-started with an almost 70s prog rock pulse and the hypnotic "Phantom Always" even flirts with arena rock atmospherics, while "Better Wise Up" lays bare an intricate art rock heart. Best of all, the ballad "Baptized in Blacklight" is a pining lamentation that breaks down the entire album in its magic hour. Everything is faced, no questions are left unanswered, and nothing is holding him back this time around. The sophomore effort is Kenna's most celebratory confessional, irony-free, homage-less, simply the testament of a man who can't help but possess the essence of a new era and the sound of an irreplaceable place, all with lyrics that convey an almost proverbial timelessness. Ample doses of mystery keep the cult in a paradoxically satisfying crave-state; as Kenna himself only gives away so much when he says, "[FACE] is a story from start to finish. A search for identity. A willingness to go to extremes to find the truth and balance. Stretching. Attempting. Failing. Attempting again. Getting back up and hoping for the best. All the while, finding yourself growing and becoming more aware and comfortable with imperfection. That's [FACE], from 'Daylight' to 'Wide Awake.'"

Kenna Zemedkun spent the first three years of his life with his grandfather in Ethiopia, where his family was from. His mother and father had left the country soon after his birth to escape persecution from the new government, moving first to England and then to the U.S. Kenna eventually joined his parents in Cincinnati when he was three years old -- however, he spent his formative years in the place that really affected his music: Virginia Beach. It was there that a friend lent him a copy of U2's Joshua Tree, an album that profoundly changed Kenna's perspective on how an album could sound. Soon, he started teaching himself how to play the piano and studied singers like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, as well as listened to his fair share of bands like the Cure and Duran Duran.

Kenna didn't decide to make music his career, however, until college, when he realized that the more standard route of formal education wasn't the right one for him. Teaming up with high-school friend Chad Hugo (of the Neptunes), Kenna set to work making demo tapes. One of these eventually made its way to Atlantic, and then to Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst, who had recently started his own imprint, Flawless, on Geffen/Interscope. Durst was impressed by what he heard and gave Kenna (with production help from Hugo) the go-ahead to make his own album. Unfortunately, when it was completed, Durst was unable to get the backing from Interscope to release it, and let the musician go (among other things, the label was unsure how to promote the album, as it didn't fit into any one market). Record in hand, Kenna found a new home at Columbia, which eventually issued New Sacred Cow in 2003.

His sophomore effort faced similar problems. Although it was mostly completed by 2005, again he had trouble finding a label to put it out. To help fill the ever-growing space between albums, Kenna released the EP The Black Goodbye with help from the Neptunes-run Star Trak in 2006. Finally, signed back to Interscope, his second full-length, Make Sure They See My Face, was released in October 2007 (and not without its share of delays and changes, of course). Marisa Brown, All Music

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