ATLANTA - Akon's explosive rise to the top of the music charts was fueled by feel-good songs and naughty grooves - but his criminal past was always an underlying part of his success. His breakthrough album was "Konvicted," his music company is called Konvict, and the clank of prison bars are often heard in his music.

But after his burgeoning international star appeal was tarnished by missteps, including a brush with the law, the singer is looking to distance himself from street life and make amends for his mistakes.

"At this stage of my life, I'm trying to step away from the whole convict aura," said the artist, releasing his third CD, "Freedom," this week.

Akon, born in America to Senegalese parents and reared in both countries, became a successful R&B star with his platinum 2004 CD "Trouble." But he emerged as one of pop's bigger names with the multiplatinum success of his 2006 CD "Konvicted."

His sort tenor and distinctive sound made him a sought-after producer and songwriter for top stars including Gwen Stefani.

"He has his own sound, his own voice, his own way of talking about his own life that hardly anyone can copy," said Akon's platinum protege, T-Pain.

But Akon's path to superstardom hit some roadblocks last year. He drew widespread criticism for his sexually charged dance onstage with a 14-year-old girl during a spring concert in Trinidad. He claims he didn't know the girl was underage and contends that sexual dancing is a part of West Indian culture. The firestorm led Verizon to drop sponsorship from his tour with Stefani.

A few months later, Akon had an altercation with a 15-year-old boy at a concert in upstate New York, throwing the teen off the stage and into the audience after a bottle was thrown in the singer's direction. Another concertgoer said she suffered a concussion when the boy landed on her. Akon faces misdemeanor charges in that case.

Akon blames the situation on an aggressive fan, calling it a case of a celebrity being treated "like some animal." But Akon later apologized to his own family and fans for all his mistakes through his song, "Sorry, Blame It on Me."

Akon has also dealt with accusations he tried to shave years off his age and exaggerated his criminal rep (he did time for car theft).

All the controversies seem to have made Akon to share more of a positive outlook of life. He even changed the title of the new album, from "Acquitted" to "Freedom."

"They're looking to push my buttons and watch to see if I'll explode like every other convict would," Akon said. "But I'm not. I'm like Barack Obama - real calm and relaxed. They're not going to trigger me into exploding no more." *