Nobody likes Ashanti. Actually, that’s not strictly true. Her records sell by the bucket-load and MTV and radio playlists (the new Payola) can’t get enough of her. However to an army of critics (be they hip-hop-, rock- or soul-oriented) Ashanti represents everything that is wrong with current black pop music. The prosecution case includes the following charges. She has a fairly weak voice, her records are largely aimed at that most despised of audiences, teenage girls, and she has a public persona as anodyne as any since the days of Fabian and Annette Funicello. In addition, her association with Irv Gotti and Murder Inc, whose off-record tribulations can’t be doing much for the chanteuse’s wholesome image, has lumbered her with the most Imperially Clothed of the current crop of producers. Moreover, the fall-out from the un-edifying Soul Train awards episode is still fairly toxic. Finally, there is the issue of the wholesale plundering of over-used samples from a more dignified and creative era. Taken together, this means that derivative, bland and cynical are just some of the less vitriolic adjectives getting hurled in Ashanti’s direction. So, at a time when Aretha, Erykah and Mary J. are all splendidly resurgent, you can rest assured that Chapter 2 is not going to feature as any scribe’s R&B album of the year.
Much of the above opprobrium is absolutely justified and if you are looking for either originality or depth then this is the wrong place to do so. Yet, some form of partial rebuttal is in order. For a start, the purported vocal weaknesses are much exaggerated. Nobody with a knowledge of Jeannie Reynolds or Linda Jones is ever going to class her as a soul singer but in a world of Mya, Beyonce, Kelly and (god help us) Lumidee, Ashanti easily holds her own. Then there is the music. Yes it’s more ‘80s retro than R&B, yes the samples are too familiar and do occasionally border on the sacrilegious, but they make for some pleasant, if undemanding, pop-soul. Anyway, all tunes are new if you haven’t heard them before. For instance, the widely condemned re-make of the Fatback Band’s good-time anthem, “I Found Love” is pretty redundant at one level but in itself is perfectly acceptable.
Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Rufus, The Isley Brothers and Al Green provide other “sources of inspiration” but, in truth, underpin the set’s strongest moments. “Feel So Good” (White’s “Playing Your Game”) is an efficient head-nodder that manages to be light and likeable rather than simply light-weight. “Rain on Me” (Hayes’ “The Look of Love”) is similarly paced and equally effective. Ashanti sings with conviction and unprejudiced ears will recognize this as a fully credible contemporary R&B cut.“Then Ya Gone” (Isley’s “Ain’t I Been Good to You”) actually promises some real anguish and power. It is spoiled as, to a lesser extent, are the two previously mentioned tunes by the “rapped” inanities of Irv Gotti and Chink Santana. These two—Gotti’s interminable forced laughter particularly—provide the second weakest elements of the project. The weakest are the inept “skits” that pepper the album. I don’t know who first thought these “interludes” were a good idea. They aren’t—and the examples on Chapter 2, unfunny and irritating, are among the worst you’ll ever hear and should hasten the demise of this unnecessary affectation.
On a less negative note, “Breakup 2 Makeup” (Rufus’ “Sweet Thing”, sort of) is the best of the slow tunes and the one that most nearly avoids the whininess that too often infects Ashanti’s vocal chords. I presume you are already sick of the overly “ooh baby-ish” “Rock Wit U” but give it a year or two and its merits as an ode to adolescent longings might become clear. The rest of the songs are run-of-the-mill at best, although they are never less than competent and walkman-friendly. The subject matter is slight, the sentiments easy to unpick but there are no pretensions to anything other than the articulation of youthful romanticism. Pop music with an MTV aesthetic this most definitely is and not cutting-edge or hard-core in any sense (which is why Gotti’s boasting is so blatantly ludicrous).There is no reason, though, on the actual musical evidence, to single out Ashanti as the Devil incarnate. What she is doing is in a tradition of American teenage song, that this now includes African-American performers should hardly be considered shocking 50 years after Frankie Lymon.
Perhaps it is the unremitting niceness that offends. Synthetic scowls and petulance seem to pass uncriticised in this era of “attitude” and “in your face” aggression. Ashanti’s “old-fashioned” sweetness is no more or less ersatz than the posturing of her more fiery contemporaries. In fact, coupling that sweetness with samples from a more optimistic era may actually be quite clever. It certainly is appropriate and, to a greater extent than one might wish, succeeds admirably. Don’t get me wrong, this is a hard-nosed commercial enterprise and if it was the only type of Black music getting made I would hang my head in sorrow, but as one facet of the whole musical spectrum I don’t see it as either especially surprising or horrifying. It is what it is. Catchy pop music based on some great old soul tunes. What’s the harm in that?