Ashanti's breathy, cooing vocals are well suited to the mellow mood of this collection. She co-wrote everything except the solely self-penned, extremely lightweight "Thank You." But the subjects (breakups, booty calls and believe-in-your-dreams) and the production are strictly Cliche City. Despite the seductive intimacy of her sweet voice, "Ashanti" has nothing more substantial than that to prop up 17 tracks of essentially the same thing.
In addition, several strictly unnecessary between-track skits take a turn for the ugly with the "Fight" scene preceding "Over" (which comes complete with ominous thunderstorm sounds in the mix). Returning the favor, Ja Rule appears on "Leaving (Always on Time Part II)," which at least creates some interesting textures with strings, buzzing bass and acoustic guitar.
***1/2 Susana Baca, "Espiritu Vivo," Luaka Bop. The album's title, which means Living Spirit, could refer to the chilling events that haunted this vibrant recording, made in New York in the days immediately following Sept. 11. But it also applies to the ancient soul of Afro-Peruvian music, which takes on new life through Baca's exquisitely enriched versions. The classic "Toro Mata" gains depth and mystery with new choruses and eerie electronic embellishments, while the celebratory "Se Me Van Los Pies" stirs up an unexpected spell like a frenetic street rumba. Although it seems self-consciously global at times, at the expense of some true criollo flavor, this work stands as a shining, progressive contribution to the genre.