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Uncommon Sense

New Albums From Ashanti and Cam’Ron Sustain in the Mundane

WORDS’ WORTH: Lyrically, Ashanti (BOTTOM) is every woman, and Cam’Ron (TOP) is his own man.

By Mikael Wood | Posted 1/26/2005

Twenty-four-year-old Long Island, N.Y., native Ashanti Douglas might be the most literal-minded star in the urban-music firmament. On her self-titled 2002 debut, she sang breezy, astoundingly earnest love songs called “Happy” and “Foolish” and “Scared” and “Baby”; each laid out a plan for romance that didn’t extrapolate much beyond its title. Her label, the gangsta-rap powerhouse the Inc. (the former Murder Inc.), marketed Ashanti as a counterbalancing agent to the bling-crusted bluster espoused by Ja Rule, the gruff-voiced pop-rap star with whom Ashanti recorded a series of excellent chart-topping duets that deserve a place alongside those of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Basically, the Inc. chief Irv Gotti viewed Ashanti as a sort of junior-high version of what Bad Boy had done with Mary J. Blige, the self-proclaimed Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, nearly a decade earlier.

Yet in the same way that Rule’s mean-streets criminology actually served to stoke the imaginations of suburb-bound white guys more than documenting the reality of actual inner-city dwellers, Ashanti’s hits also voiced the bland desires of the American Everygirl not necessarily looking for a thug lover to call her own. The hip-hop detailing provided an illusion of realistic grit necessary to seduce an increasingly media-savvy audience, but at heart Ashanti’s songs were as open-ended and all-inclusive as those by Michelle Branch, another singer with a personality easier to define by omission than inclusion. That she accomplished this in part with lyrics that openly defied interpretation is a testament to the pop ingenuity of the Inc. brain trust.

Concrete Rose
ASHANTI
The Inc.

Purple Haze
CAM'RON
Roc-A-Fella

Ashanti opens Concrete Rose, her third CD, by answering the question burning inside anyone who wondered how in the world she came up with the title: “Concrete Rose, because, like, when you think of hip-hop, you know, you think of something grimy, grungy, kind of gritty,” she explains in a make-believe radio interview. “And then when you think of R&B, you think of something soft, sensual—you know, kind of like a rose. My music is considered hip-hop and R&B, so hence: Concrete Rose.”

As ever, her lyrics remain as leaden as asphalt. “Only you can make me feel,” she claims vaguely in “Only U.” “Only you can take me there.” (This comes after a verse in which she admits, “If I couldn’t have you I would probably go insane”; surely, the inclusion of “probably” marks a new level of lyrical bet hedging.) In “U” she glimpses new horizons of commitment: “I want you, gotta have you/ Said I need you, can you feel me?” Tracks like “Don’t Leave Me Alone,” “So Hot,” and “Love Again” plumb the same shallow depths of linguistic invention.

Still, however dogged her determination to strip modern R&B of its writerly sophistication, Ashanti says more in Concrete Rose’s high points than any number of well-meaning metaphor-slinging neo-soul wannabes. Her partnership with producer 7 Aurelius is a fruitful one. The friction between the grinding blade-runner synth riff that motors “Only U” and the singer’s blank sass conjures a kind of manic devotion; it’s what makes you believe that “you got me doing things that I would never do.” In “Focus,” Aurelius creates a menacing stutter-stepped disco beat, over which Ashanti floats banalities about cutting some deadbeat out of her life. The drama comes from the way she drops little vocal ad libs into the track’s negative space, as if she’s finding a way to fill the emptiness of her days. These little formal tricks represent an interesting new page in Ashanti’s wide-ruled notebook; maybe she’ll spend The Fourth Album by the R&B Singer Ashanti, due out next year, exploring them.

Harlem, N.Y., native Cameron Giles, who turns 29 this month, does not share Ashanti’s distrust of words. He fills virtually every cut on Purple Haze (Roc-A-Fella), his fourth album, with dense chunks of verbiage—words for meaning, words for atmosphere, words for whatever. If Ashanti bleeds her monied gangsta-chic surroundings of unsavory specifics to make it palatable to all, Cam’ron tries to capture all the details of his by occasionally sacrificing easy comprehension for pungent sensation. Sometimes his streams of gangsta gibberish collect in pools of astounding poetry: “You want happy scrappy/ I got Pataki at me,” he raps in “Killa Cam.” “Bitches say I’m tacky, daddy/ Range look like Laffy Taffy.” In four lines he references New York’s governor, paints himself as a high-profile outlaw, degrades women, and alludes to his preference for pastels. In “Leave Me Alone Pt. 2” he compares himself to “the plant in Little Shop of Horrors/ But I don’t say, ‘Feed me, Seymour’/ I say, ‘Feed me, Dame; feed me, Leeyor.’” He’s referring to his record-biz bosses, but he’s really giving a humdrum concern—getting paid—a hint of bizarre, witty power.

That’s what Cam’ron shares with Ashanti: the need to make drama out of the everyday and vice versa. Purple Haze offers all kinds of left turns, like the sappy Hill Street Blues sample in “Harlem Streets” and the Cyndi Lauper flip in “Girls”; the rapper (and his producers, which here include Kanye West, the Heatmakerz, and Chad Wes Hamilton) knows that to get us to pay attention to what we’re encouraged to ignore he has to breathe new life into old tropes. He trusts in the dependability of a well-placed Earth Wind and Fire sample, but he trusts more lyrics that keep on extrapolating, and then some.

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