This first appeared in The Chicago Reader.
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Today fabulous divas and thuggy rappers use the same producers. They sing about the same things—mainly clubbin’ and sex. They date each other. And they appear not just on the same radio stations but on the same tracks. For all practical purposes, hip-hop and R&B have merged into a single commercial juggernaut.

Ashanti, who’s been out of circulation for four years, has already proven herself a diva, but her big comeback, The Declaration, is also her attempt to fully and finally embrace radio reality. It’s the album where she shakes off the influence of label owner Irv Gotti and hooks up with a bunch of megaproducers to prove she can rock the dance floors of the late aughts even harder than she rocked the bedrooms of 12-year-old girls in 2002.

That was the plan, anyway. But The Declaration is completely anonymous. It feels like it could’ve been put together by any second- or third-rate R&B diva—Christina Milian, say, or Lumidee. It’s not terrible, and there are some nice moments—the piano loop on the lead single, “The Way That I Love You,” works well, and “In These Streets” gets lodged in your head in that pleasurable/painful way certain pop songs do—but the moments of inspiration are fleeting. Even Rodney Jerkins, who’s been on fire these past couple of years, seems to be sleepwalking; his production job on “So Over You” sounds like he unearthed a duff Brandy track from ten years ago and remixed it while doing his taxes. “Girlfriend” is a dreary knock-off of Ciara’s “Promises.” And Akon’s contribution to “Body on Me” is just like every other one of his wack misogynist whines—the man is a one-trick blight.

Even more distressing, though, is the slide in Ashanti’s singing. She’s largely abandoned the slightly nasal burr that put a poignant catch in everything she did. Gone too are the smarts, which made her one of the most underrated pop singers in the business despite her thin voice. Nothing here matches the aching pause in “I’m so… happy, baby” (from “Happy,” on her self-titled debut), the clipped, funky stutter in “Focus,” or the jazzy phrasing that swings her sublimely off the beat in “Don’t Let Them” (both from 2004’s Concrete Rose).

On The Declaration Ashanti runs through a smorgasbord of vocal styles. On “You Gonna Miss” she vacillates between a hard-edged pseudo-Beyonce and a processed pseudo-Ciara. On “Things You Make Me Do” she seems to be imitating the sensual purr of her old rival Tweet. It’s like she desperately wants to be somebody else, or anybody other than herself. On the execrable faux show tune “Shine,” Ashanti insists that “They can’t shut out your light/ No matter how hard they try.” But this record is proof that, if you give them just a little help, they can in fact smother your inner beauty under a big, fat bushel of blandness.

Of course, negative reviews of Ashanti albums are par for the course. Except for the millions of tween girls who bought her CDs in the early aughts, pretty much everyone despises Ashanti’s music. Even contrarians who laud the virtues of disposable plastic pop tend to prefer Beyonce or Kelis or Mariah Carey. Ashanti, who was briefly as big as any of them, rarely merits a mention.

Ashanti’s problems—now and then—mostly stem from being on the wrong side of the zeitgeist. Specifically, she has a very uncomfortable relationship with hip-hop. Her 2002 debut included some of the most embarrassing faux-street skits ever committed to disc, with the pitiful Gotti incongruously bellowing profanities like some sort of Tourette’s-afflicted ungulate (“I’m feeling the shit out of you, you’re feeling the shit out of me”). A remix of her big single “Foolish” featured a sexually explicit rap by the deceased Biggie Smalls, with Ashanti cooing encouragement. Instead of buying her some cred, it just made her seem cluelessly ghoulish.

The trouble is that Ashanti came on the scene just as R&B and hip-hop were fusing. In the 90s hip-hop was certainly an important influence on R&B, but there was still some distance between them. When Aaliyah sings “One in a Million,” for example, it’s emphatically R&B—the music is groove based, and the lyrics are a straightforward tribute to perfect love. Timbaland’s beats function as an insistent but separate voice, so that the track becomes almost a duet, a love song from R&B to hip-hop with Aaliyah and the breakbeats trading endearments and vows.

The two genres consummated their relationship at the end of the decade. Acts like Destiny’s Child (with producer Kevin Briggs) and Kelis (with the Neptunes) moved away from grooves and toward more complex song structures, integrating beats and multilayered vocals. Lyrics also began to adopt a much more in-your-face hip-hop attitude—instead of agonizing over the men who done them wrong, Beyonce and Kelis come across as tough and angry, chewing out stalkers, cheaters, and parasites with gleeful disdain. On songs like “Bootylicious,” Destiny’s Child even slipped seamlessly from singing to quasi-rapping while boasting about their sexual charms.

Ashanti is a different story. The music on her debut was the last, gorgeous gasp of 90s R&B. Taking his cue from Butterfly-era Mariah Carey, producer 7aurelius didn’t so much write songs as pour glittery, translucent glop over beats and vocals. The result was a syrupy, trudging, pulsing drone—doom metal by Care Bears. Ashanti and her infinitely multitracked doubles often sound buried alive, desperately emoting from inside an echoey pink plastic prison, repeating and repeating R&B signifiers (“Baby baby baby baby baby”) until all meaning is squeezed out of them and they start to register as pure sound. It’s overwhelmingly, swooningly, gooily romantic, miles away from the invulnerable iron-bitch strut of Beyonce or the true-pain confessions of neosoul artists like Keyshia Cole. In other words, it’s neither tough nor real. There’s nothing hip-hop about it.

Ashanti’s next two albums kept the same format—lousy skits, ravishingly ethereal music—but fell off progressively from the massive commercial success of the first. Gotti’s legal troubles certainly helped sabotage 2004’s Concrete Rose, but in any case the space in R&B for artists with so little real affinity for hip-hop was shrinking. On 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi, Mariah Carey proved she was flexible enough to adapt and still make good music, but Ashanti… well, not so much. On The Declaration, in order to fit in with the current state of R&B, she’s systematically erased all traces of her musical personality.

I’m not trying to say that everything was better back in the day. Though 90s R&B had its moments, overall I think the genre has benefited enormously from hip-hop’s influence. Still, there’s a price; pop is a zero-sum game, and when one style wins, another loses. That’s why today Ashanti’s early albums sound like a transmission from another world, a place where R&B never took that left turn but instead went straight on, stuck in one endless, shimmering groove.

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