Akon generally knows his place. Or at least that’s what the third album in his crime-and-punishment-themed trilogy, Freedom, indicates. Akon is in no way the badass he aspires to be, but after two albums of radio-friendly club hits mixed in with sub-par filler, he is at least finally favoring what he does best — dance floor balladry — and generally avoiding the gangsta-rap. This still doesn’t make for a critic-flooring masterpiece, but Freedom certainly will spawn some overplayed radio singles and sweaty clubber anthems.

To describe the sound of Freedom simply, just about every song plays like a remix, demo, cover or interesting perversion of Usher’s “Love in This Club.” The two artists aren’t necessarily that similar, but the synths are present on Freedom, as are the R&B falsettos, not-so-witty lyrics and growling Young Buck solo. And no matter whether he comes off as authentic or not — that doesn’t stop Akon from singing about being a “Troublemaker.”

The familiar sound of jail doors slamming punctuates the beginning of opener “Right Now (Na Na Na)” and later tracks, as on Konvicted and Trouble. This may not be the smartest sonic trope for a musical trilogy, but then again this is Akon — how much do you expect from the man who brought us such enlightened fare as “Smack That” and “Don’t Matter”?

Unfortunately, Akon isn’t the best rapper with a national-microphone and can’t sing particularly well, either. He compensates by using digital tricks constantly, and it gets a bit overwhelming. On Freedom‘s best and worst tracks alike, his vocals are so overtly processed that they make Lil’ Wayne’s “Lollipop” sound organic and breezy (Wayne does make an appearance on the album).

Of course, Akon is known for his collaborations, and these make up the majority of Freedom to good effect. Akon’s guests will always be grimier, edgier and more exciting than Akon himself, so Freedom is best when these guests get to do their own thing. One example, the likely-single “Beautiful,” strikes a successful balance between Akon’s whiny, yet catchy, upper upper-register and Kardinal Offishall’s sinewy Canadian wordplay.

But what it comes down to is that all these details sound like they could be describing any Akon album. For the most part Freedom is pretty similar to the “ghetto-life” musician’s earlier work — but he’s clearly learning when his music works best. Some good tracks sound like new Chris Brown (all glossy and parading disco beats), many like the aforementioned “Love in This Club,” one shockingly similar to the dance-pop tracks on Matisyahu’s Youth and a few like James Blunt sugar-ballads. Akon is most annoying when he tries to be a streetwise rapper and most likable when he does the opposite.

Freedom is surprisingly solid. At an hour long it’s not a short play, yet it’s relatively absent of filler and carries plenty of potential hits. Akon is still singing cheesy lines about love lost, lusty stares and living on the edge, but aside for a few drab moments like “Sunny Day,” that melodrama works. Elitists might love to hate Akon, and this third effort probably won’t be his Freedom from all that, but it certainly is hard to bash.

Akon knows it, and he’ll probably meet you and your friends at the bar — Akon fans will love Freedom, and everybody else will have no problem putting up with it.

3 stars out of 5.