It's hard to imagine anyone flipping over the music of Ashanti Douglas, better known simply as Ashanti, a beautiful R&B vocalist from Long Island with a sweet albeit uninspiring voice. Yet in 2002, the music world did just that. Riding a wave of popularity from her guest appearances on smash singles by Ja Rule, Fat Joe, and the Notorious B.I.G., her debut single, "Foolish", was a mainstay in the top 10. At one point, amazingly, her voice graced three singles in the top 10 of the Billboard charts. Looking back at that time, it seems incredible that a singer of such unspectacular talents could inspire such hysteria.
I must admit that I write this review as an unabashed and unapologetic Beyoncé Knowles fan. Not only am I a fan of her voice and her sex appeal, but I am also deeply impressed by the visceral impact of her music. "Crazy in Love", the smash single from her solo debut, Dangerously in Love, simply blasts out of the speakers, carried by an unbelievable horn-section hook as well as a thumping and entrancing bridge of "uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, oh no no" that makes you feel the quiver of a body riveted with sexual anticipation and abandon. It's an amazing pop single by a master of hip-hop and R&B.
I couldn't get "Crazy in Love" out of my mind as I listened to Ashanti's third album, Concrete Rose. After a few spins, I realized that what I was longing for was something that startled me, shook me, made me sit up and take notice. Ashanti's record is a decent, 54-minute collection of mostly mid-tempo tracks by a decent R&B singer. The closest Concrete Rose comes to taking control of the listener is on the dance-club single "Turn It Up", featuring the singer's label-mate, Ja Rule. Bolstered by a hook featuring a tight string section reminiscent of Philadelphia soul over a thumping bass beat, Ashanti's verse phrases are punctured by Ja Rule yells of "Turn it up!" and "Oh! Oh!", reminiscent, quite frankly, of the hip-hop megahit of 2003, Usher's "Yeah!" Nonetheless, this boisterous ode to clubbing and partying certainly makes you move. Is it "Crazy in Love"? Certainly not, but then again, Ashanti is not Beyoncé and Ja Rule is not Jay-Z.
Nonetheless, I would prefer an entire album of tracks that grooved and gripped me, even if they were all somewhat derivative. The lion's share of the album is devoted to tracks like the single "Still Down". The musical bed is light and airy, with a tightly constructed piano and synth hook, bolstered by Ashanti's pithy vocals about the virtues of puppy love. "Still Down", however, sounds remarkably like "Every Lil' Thing", which sounds remarkably like "Take Me Tonight", which sounds like... well, you get the point. Actually, "Take Me Tonight", a duet between Ashanti and the R&B singer Lloyd (following in the footsteps of the many duet singles that propelled her to fame a few years ago), is perhaps the hardest track to swallow. On an album that Ashanti feels to be deep and soulful, she and Lloyd share the following exchange: "(Ashanti) Maybe we could go somewhere tonight / (Lloyd) If you wanna baby we could catch a flight / (Ashanti) Long as I got you babe / Everything is OK." So it's not Bob Dylan, I understand that. But Ashanti's singing style is smooth, professional, and, well, that's about it. A great singer could make "Long as I got you babe / Everything is OK" profound. With Ashanti, to this listener's ears, it sounds exactly like what it is.
In the spoken-word "skit" that opens the album (a phenomenon that rock fans like me will still never understand), Ashanti proclaims her conviction that Concrete Rose is her best album yet, in that it's more deeper, it has got more soul. If this is indeed true, it speaks more to the mediocrity of her prior records than to the excellence of her most last release. So why is this album currently in the top 10? Well, for one thing Ashanti is beautiful. But how far can that get you? After a while, once you've grown tired of her sculpted body and revealing outfits, you're left with an album of so-so hook and vapid lyrics. Is that the worst thing in the world? Certainly not. Worthy of the top ten? Not in my opinion. But kudos to Ashanti. Apparently she's found a niche in the market that she can inhabit, and who am I to judge? I expect Ashanti to ride this wave of popularity as far as it will take her. As a listener, however, I will not be surprised when, upon listening to her fourth album, I am not surprised.