22 Going on 40 or Not

Simple Sex Kitten and Complicated Stepmom Moon Over Real Thugs and Fake Ones

Ashanti's otherwise unmemorable breakout single, "Foolish," helped establish the 22-year-old as a sweet-natured faux gangsta moll and entirely unthreatening sex kitten, an image boosted by numerous duets with passably dangerous rappers and a reputation as the well-tended princess of Murder Inc. Because these days you can't be too careful,

Ashanti begins her second album with a helpfully supplied medley of hits from her first, including "Foolish," basically a tarted-up DeBarge song (that's a compliment) by way of Biggie Smalls. For those who still have trouble placing her, the disc's booklet converts into a poster of Ashanti, oiled-up and half-naked.

It's hard to imagine anyone less kittenish, less likely to be superfluously oiled, than Monica, the 22-going-on-40 former teen r&b singer last seen co-starring in the classic "The Boy Is Mine" video, in which she resembled a particularly beautiful preying mantis eyeing poor, moon-faced Brandy as if she were an appetizer. Monica hasn't released an album since 1998, having spent the intervening years as the erstwhile girlfriend of the currently incarcerated C-Murder (try to guess what he's in for), watching children who aren't hers, and generally living the sort of complicated life from which expressive soul records are made. Unfortunately, After the Storm isn't one.

It offers up exactly four minutes of unfettered Id: On "So Gone," Monica suggests that the behavior of an unfaithful boyfriend "make me want to ride past your house and sit/Kick down your door and smack your chick/Just to show you Monica not having it." It would have been lovely to imagine an album full of such reproving anthems, with Monica reinvented as the Vengeful Girlfriend of r&b—a market she would have had largely to herself, the r&b-abandoning Pink notwithstanding. But after the record-opening one-two knockout of "So Gone" and "Get It Off" (which waxes rhapsodic about "A man, a woman, and a latex"), After the Stormdissolves into a pillowy mixture of limpid ballads and self-help expositions from which it never recovers. Though there are occasional allusions to her troubles ("Think about it who comes to see ya/Every Saturday and Monday I was on that receiver," she pleads on "U Should've Known Better," the inevitable Ode to My Boyfriend in Prison), Monica, it turns out, summons as little resolve, as little naturalism, from her actual thug life as Ashanti does from her fake one.

Both singers seem attracted to bad boy-friends as if by gravitational pull, though Ashanti's are more likely to be merely unfaithful than actually in jail. Both have made records that can't help but evoke other, better records: While Monica appears to be referencing a more soulful version of mid-period Missy Elliott (not a bad idea, and, since Elliott serves as a co-producer here, probably unavoidable), Ashanti seems to be positioning herself as a latter-day Mary J. Blige, although she's more like Minnie Riperton without the range. Chapter IIsounds like one long, old-school jam, with the occasional inexpert rap thrown in. Padded with medleys and between-song skits, hampered by a demonstrable lack of both personality and hooks, it's craven, depressing, and irresistible all at once.

Ashanti, who received writing credits for several tracks, seems perfectly content to coo her way through a series of uplifting ballads colorless enough to make one nostalgic for Ja Rule. But Monica has too much of a voice—and, presumably, too much of a point of view—to be stuck dispensing boilerplate, TLC-like platitudes, and she sounds like she knows it. Ashanti, bless her heart, doesn't seem destined for much else. And she sounds like she knows it, too.

 
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