Like a Virgin

Who will reconcile Ashanti's divided soul? Not her. Certainly not her. In song and in conversation, she barely admits to the contradictions she straddles: r&b sweetness and hip-hop sex talk; Ivy League aspirations and street hustle; girls and boys. Ashanti blows past this stuff with a showbiz shrug and smile. Divided soul? Not her.

Daughter of a singer father and a dancer mother, Ashanti is a showbiz baby as surely as Britney and Christina, even has a Disney connection (danced in a TV movie called Polly) and an old contract with Jive (signed at 14). She started dance lessons at two, but her current career dates back to age 12, when her mom heard her singing a Mary J. Blige song while she vacuumed. Her No. 1 debut, Ashanti, came out on Murder Inc., her third label, at age 21. She'd had a shot at a Princeton track scholarship; instead, she became a suburban Long Island girl shoulder to shoulder with the thugs of a Manhattan studio called the Crackhouse. "In the industry," she demurred to the Times, "that's what they call a hit record—a crack."

Like Britney and Christina, Ashanti makes music with the perverse appeal of an overstuffed couch with plastic slipcovers. Looks comfy, crinkles unforgivingly when you try to put your body on it, sticks to you in funny ways. Ashanti, though, really sticks. "Foolish," her solo hit, is her third No. 1 single, after two as the hook girl on Fat Joe's "What's Luv?" and Ja Rule's "Always on Time" (neither on Ashanti)—to say nothing of the Jennifer Lopez remix of "I'm Real" that Ashanti was happy to tell The Sourcejust happened to feature some of her guide vocals on the finished track. She holds her own with Ja on "Always on Time" (fucked up his car, isn't always home when he calls) and plays Joe's willing 'ho in the fairly heinous "What's Luv?" (wants him on top when she looks into his eyes). Both songs are, basically, about fucking and cheating, and how the cheating doesn't really matter when you're keeping it real. They live deep in the drugged-out world of sexual fantasy, with Ashanti's pillow-soft vocals feeding the high. She sounds soft and pliable even when the fellas describe her as hard and stormy. Not to make it too simple, but she's sounding virgin and they're thinking whore.

So what's she thinking? In "Foolish," she's sitting by the window nursing a heartache, wondering why she can pack her bags but never leave. This is the flip side of sexual fantasy, a world of romantic obsession and erotic compulsion. The emptiness when he's not there, the hurt when he is, the promises that keep her coming back, the utter bafflement as to why she'd let anyone treat her this way, the trust, the tears, the certainty that it will never change—this is lived, not dreamed, every lyric self-written and based, she's suggested, on the same relationship. Ashantiis full of power games, self-destructive emotional ties, sex that won't quit, and phone calls in the middle of the night. "He's like a lighter to my cigarette," she sings in "Baby." "Watch me smoke. I never knew another human life can have the power to take over mine." The music invokes the fictions of romance novels and soap operas (harps, strings, melodramatic melodies), but lyrics like that pull things back to earth again and again.

Ashanti sings like she talks: with a burr underneath, a growl that's slight but noticeable. Her voice is dry and a little thin, so the tracks are wet wet wet, drenched in synthesized strings, sweet rhythm guitar, and not one but two DeBarge samples. In the open air, the music tends to dissipate, but put it in your Discman and it blossoms with hidden flourishes. Melody lines sprout in your ear canal, percussion nuances take up residence in your cerebral cortex, bass parts goose your ass. Ashanti's secret weapon is one 7Aurulius, who produces or co-produces all but three tracks, and usually plays everything but guitar. He's now working on Mariah's Island-Def Jam comeback. Watch out.

If loving you is wrong, I don't want to be right. That's pretty much all Ashanti has to tell us, but as stories go, hers never runs out of gas. This is a story usually told by women or by male falsettos. It's a soul-music truth, the truth of someone who knows better but can't do better. Like I said, a divided soul.

 
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