How could a guy produced by one of the Neptunes and described by U2’s manager as a future world-changer be a commercial stiff? Author Malcolm Gladwell couldn’t believe the failure of Kenna’s 2003 debut, New Sacred Cow, either, and devoted a chapter of his latest bestseller, Blink, to “Kenna’s Dilemma.” The conclusion Gladwell reached about the Ethiopian-born, Virginia Beach–raised artist? Music experts understood and adored Kenna’s fusion of new wave and cutting-edge r&b, but random focus groups evaluating 30-second sound clips lacked the time and tools to judge it properly.
Of course, focus groups run the music business, and Kenna’s long-delayed second album reflects that harsh reality. It’s difficult to imagine that “Baptized in Blacklight,” with its surging, Coldplay-sized chorus, would flunk a blind taste test, and the whole of Make Sure They See My Face—again partially overseen by Neptune Chad Hugo—is inviting and immediate, benefiting from the familiarity dance-punk’s rise has brought to ersatz disco like “Say Goodbye to Love.” The greatest thrill, however, is that Kenna’s square-peg edges still never quite line up with the mainstream hole. “Loose Wires” employs the same sparse, percussive beat that’s underlaid many a Neptunes hit, with an Off the Wall hook Justin Timberlake would bring “SexyBack” for. But Kenna subverts the bodyrockin’ premise by summoning his inner Gary Numan, keening android-like about “riding around with glossed-over eyes.” That wonderfully weird streak makes it unsure Kenna’s face will ever get seen; regardless, as Gladwell suggested, those who know music need to know about this.