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Ashanti

Concrete Rose (Murder Inc./Def Jam)

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In connection with any Ashanti album, the red herring has always been the vocal ability -- or, more precisely, the lack of it --of Murder Inc.'s gal Friday. Okay, so she's not a great singer. But it's not like pop music is filled with budding Aretha Franklins these days. Before millions of viewers, Ashlee Simpson reveals the industry's prefab truth to be as naked as Lady Godiva, and people are still picking on poor Ashanti?

Still, when a performer so wholly dependent on strong material turns in a collection this slight, people are liable to consider it the iceberg that her titanic career has been waiting to hit since it left the dock. The first hummable cut (the organ-driven soul of "Don't Let Them") comes nearly halfway in -- and you might not make it that far, after sitting through numbingly repetitive hip-pop throwaways like "Only U," where an unwisely overheated Ashanti attempts to pant a message of lust. When a couple of other decent tunes arrive, at disc's end, it's far too late. On one of them, "Freedom," Ashanti says of the haters: "In my heart I know they wishin' I would stop." Concrete Rose might take care of that.

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