SANTA MONICA, California — More than two years after Fred Durst walked him down the red carpet at the Grammys touting him as the next big thing, Kenna's debut is finally seeing the light of day. Only now there's no backwards red ball cap in sight.
Kenna recorded the original version of New Sacred Cow in 1999, after asking a Virginia Beach, Virginia, high school friend, Chad Hugo, to help him make an album inspired by his favorite bands, most notably the Cars and U2.
When Hugo's own project, his production team the Neptunes, became the hottest hitmakers in music, Kenna was snatched up by the highest profile upstart at the time, Durst's Flawless Records.
The problem was that Kenna found himself running into the same roadblock there as when he was shopping the album before the Neptunes exploded.
" 'Your record, your music is refreshing, Kenna,' " the Ethiopia-born singer said, impersonating a record-label executive. " 'Man, it's amazing. We're gonna definitely talk to your attorneys.' And nobody called. Some of them came to the table and tried to do something, but I don't think the record was what they could put into a box and package and sell.
"I'm just," he continued, pausing to clear his thoughts, "an artist, to me, isn't one that fits the mold. It's one who makes a mold. And I refuse to think of myself as a carbon copy of anything. I'm not made to order."
According to Kenna, a revamped New Sacred Cow was finished before Flawless' Puddle of Mudd even entered the studio. Still, their album came and went without the label giving Kenna a release date.
"Some people would say that I was a little bit impatient, but I felt like waiting two years after the record was done to put it out was incredibly patient," Kenna explained. "I went to Fred and I just basically said, 'If you let me out of my deal, I'll never make music again.' I mean, that's how frustrated I was and how willing I was to leave."
Fortunately for the singer, Durst acted, as Kenna put it, "noble."
"He said, 'I want you to make music and I really respect you as an artist and I'm still gonna let you go. I just know that it's right for you to do what you need to do and maybe it's right for you to do it elsewhere,' " Kenna recalled. "It wasn't Fred's fault. For the most part, I think it was just bureaucratic bullsh--."
It took Kenna a few months, but he eventually signed with Columbia Records, which is releasing New Sacred Cow June 10.
"I just have to consider myself blessed," Kenna said, displaying the jovial personality he's known for around Los Angeles. "Nobody gets to get out of one deal with the same record and sign another record deal and put the same record out. It just doesn't happen."
Over the course of fighting to release his debut, Kenna has written enough new material for two more albums. However, he still believes New Sacred Cow needs to be heard.
"Chad Hugo is a genius — flat-out, absolute, complete genius," Kenna said. "And, when I sat down with him, we literally made a list of criteria every song had to meet before it hit the record … I wanted every human being to listen to the album and if they don't like one song, they're going to like another one, if they don't like something about this, they're going to like something about that.
"We made this record so it would stand the test of time," he continued. "We didn't make a record that would fit 'the '60s, the '70s, the '80s or today. It's not like that. We wrote a record that is just supposed to be heard now or 10 years from now, and it's always going to be classic."
New Sacred Cow takes influences from each of those decades, but sounds like none of them. The exception might be the first single, "Freetime," which, when Kenna performed it during N.E.R.D.'s set at Coachella, had the music industry-packed VIP area guessing which '80s hit he was covering.
" 'Freetime' is about leaving something you love only to realize [that] what you had in the first place was the best thing, but the consequence might be that the person, or the thing that you had, isn't the same or isn't there," he said. "It's meant to kind of teach a lesson, or maybe it's a little didactic message about [how] grass isn't always greener on the other side."
For Kenna, though — at least this time — it is.