Anyone who knows Akon for "Lonely", the irritating playground favourite, with its Bobby Vinton sample at Pinkie and Perky speed, would be taken aback by tonight's songs about gunshots, strippers and jail time. But Akon, more honestly than most rappers, doesn't care how you know him. As he once said, "the best way to conquer the industry is to conquer other territories", and he has shared more than 100 tracks with other artists, from Gwen Stefani to Snoop. From the high street to the back alley, someone will always be playing his tune. He owns his own diamond mine, and Michael Jackson has called, desperate for his Midas touch. But for tonight's show, the man who once supposedly stole cars earns his success with honest, gracious work.
DJ Benny-D, an American with a trim mohican, aviator goggles and, he proudly reveals when leaping from the decks, a kilt and box-fresh trainers, proves he knows which town he has landed in by playing London grime records, before Akon breezes on to "Shake Down". The New Jersey boy with Senegalese roots proudly claims to hail only from "Senegal, West Africa!" tonight, rightly assuming an African contingent in any London crowd. He has a light, reedy voice, matching his handsome, modest physical presence, his shirt glittering, perhaps from his private diamond supply. Though muscular, he looks too small to be his songs' tough jailbird. Like the similarly slight Tupac, investigation suggests exaggerated criminality, in Akon's case amounting to three months inside for nothing much. Lyrical references to street hardship and violence are, however, just one layer of a commercial persona also encompassing R&B lover's man and children's entertainer.
"Gunshot" sees his guitarist pole-axed, legs in the air like a cartoon casualty. Young Jeezy's "Soul Survivor" is dedicated to "all my convicts". If there are many ex-cons in the crowd tonight with more than Akon's just-visiting jailtime, rehabilitation has gone awfully well. When he asks who here is "ghetto" to blank stares, the pretence quietly falls apart. In a moment of mutual honesty he is reduced to asking who is "in any way influenced by the ghetto" to get a cheer. "Ghetto" is then dedicated to "the soldiers in Iraq fighting for our freedom", proving you should never learn politics from a pop star. But its lyrics hit deeper, at the emptiness of stolen luxury: "Even the life you live is borrowed."
The momentum often dips in a show clearly flung together by Akon's own whims. British-Ghanaian protégé Sway adds Stepney style to "Silver and Gold". But Akon peaks when dodgy musings in sexual politics resolve into Atlanta stripper tribute "I Wanna Love You", for which, as "relationships are 50/50, I might as well strip too". This ghetto romantic bumps and grinds down to the top of his boxers before discretion prevails. Then, during current hit "Right Now (Na Na Na)", he launches his toned, topless body backwards into the crowd with a sudden, careless running jump. This star who will do anything to reach you could teach Michael Jackson about body-contact issues, and how to deliver patchy music with unflagging grace.