April 29, 2002 12:00 PM

Ashanti (Murder Inc.)

A ubiquitous guest vocalist on hip-hop hits by Ja Rule (“Always On Time”), Fat Joe (“What’s Luv?”) and Big Pun (“How We Roll”), Ashanti, 21, has shown that a pretty voice can temper the roughest rapper’s rhymes. But it’s one thing to sing a hook on someone else’s record, quite another to carry your own album, as Ashanti fails to do on this desultory debut. Blending hip-hop and soul, evocative of Mary J. Blige or Faith Evans, Ashanti, with her sweet but slight soprano, doesn’t have the grit and power of those divas. It doesn’t help that, despite sporadic sampling (one from DeBarge’s “Stay with Me” on the Top 5 single “Foolish”), many of the songs, all cowritten by Ashanti, lack memorable melodies. This is especially apparent on tedious ballads like “Rescue,” which are just plain slow.

Bottom Line: Solo struggle

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