January 10, 2005 12:00 PM

As the only woman on her close-knit record label, The Inc., R&B singer Ashanti plays little sister to rappers like Ja Rule. And after seeing how the other half lives, she confesses, “Sometimes I wish I was a boy.” Case in point: “It really used to make me angry to know that my call time [for public appearances] would be two hours before Ja’s,” she says, “because I have to get hair and makeup and shoes, and primped and prepped and ironed, and he can roll out of bed with sweatpants on and grab the mike.”

Of course Ashanti, who’s riding high with her new CD Concrete Rose and its hit single “Only U,” has never been just one of the guys. After two fruitless record deals in her teens, she made a stellar debut in 2002: Her self-titled album sold more than 4 million copies and earned her a Grammy. But she was shaken by her sudden fame. “It was a really harsh, abrupt transition, from living in the basement of my house to doing Saturday Night Live,” says the singer, now 24. “I grew up and learned my mistakes in front of everyone. Now I’m like, ‘I got this.'”

Still, rising as a pop star, “I knew the storm was coming,” she says. Critics, under-whelmed by her early live performances, thought she was a “studio singer” at best. The thuggish title of her record label—Murder Inc., which was renamed The Inc. in 2003—kept her from landing endorsement deals. And when she was awarded the Lady of Soul Aretha Franklin Award for Entertainer of the Year in 2002, an outraged teen protested the choice with an online petition that mustered 30,000 signatures. Worse, the singer’s 2003 follow-up, Chapter II, sold a comparatively low 1.5 million copies, and sales of her 2003 Christmas CD barely topped 100,000. “It was a tough time for her,” says her mom and manager, Tina Douglas, “but she turned that hurt into motivation to do better.”

Ashanti resolved to improve her stage presence (“The biggest growth has been in her stage show and performance,” says Inc. CEO Irv Gotti. “The nerves have calmed down”) and also stretched creatively with a pair of films—the drama Coach Carter, due Jan. 14, and the Bollywood-style musical Bride & Prejudice, out Feb. 11—and an ABC movie, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, airing in May (see box). Plus, she recently signed on as a spokeswoman for Herbal Essences.

By the looks of her sexy new videos, she’s grown up in other ways too. Once marketed as the girl next door (“God, I look like I am 12,” she says of pictures from 2002), Ashanti is now embracing form-fitting outfits, smokey eyes and bedroom hair with the help of her fulltime “glam squad.” Still, “in my heart I am not a raunchy chick,” she says. “I’ve always tried to keep it sassy and classy and sexy and not trashy.”

That also applies to her personal life. While rapper Nelly told reporters last month that the pair had “dated”—confirming longstanding rumors—Ashanti clarifies that “we went out, yes. We went to get something to eat, we went to the movies. We are not girlfriend and boyfriend.” In fact, her schedule precludes any serious relationships. “It really is too hard right now,” she says. “There is not a lot of stability.”

Except at home in Glen Cove, N.Y., where the singer—born Ashanti Douglas—lives with mom Tina, 50, tour manager dad Thomas, 51, and sister Shia, 15. What, a 24-year-old living at home? “No, my family lives with me,” she says. “The house is big, and I don’t need all of that space.” And for the record, she does the cooking for the household. “She has a chicken dish that is out of this world,” her mom attests. Ashanti’s culinary hobby also happens to help her keep her curvy figure. “I really do try to eat semi healthy. I don’t eat a lot of fried foods,” she says. Plus, she works out with a trainer—sometimes. “I kind of cheat,” she says, giggling. “I wait until two weeks before I know I am going to be doing a video or something on television, then I call him!”

Jason Lynch. Rebecca Paley in New York City

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