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Ashanti 

With Avril Lavigne, Mario, and others. Friday, August 23, at the Tower City Amphitheater.

You could call Ashanti a new breed of moll rat. The 21-year-old prodigy, picked for a potential track scholarship at Princeton, betrayed the promise of a good girl's life to run with the thugs at Murder Inc., a hip-hop label that records street toughs like Ja Rule at a studio called the Crackhouse. Of course, this species of rodent has been a pop staple for generations: By 1964, the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" had rendered the good girl gone bad a bit of a joke. And now, after handing Ashanti the key to her hometown, former Glen Cove, New York mayor and current Nassau County executive Thomas R. Suozzi called her "a wonderful role model for kids."

What's different about her, then, is much subtler than her spectacular success suggests. Whereas Ashanti's own role model, Mary J. Blige, still connects her hip-hop-informed-R&B to a gospel and blues tradition, Ashanti's crooning is all about lightweight baby blues. Aaliyah got there first, but Ashanti takes thumb-sucking infantilism to new extremes, with pitter-patter beats, softly cooed vocals, plush production, and a surfeit of the word "baby" itself, all neatly brushed or artfully crumpled like velvet. Her style is toughened by a steely gray undertone, but it's still so smooth, you hardly notice when she starts ratting on her lying-ass thug lovers, moving effortlessly from being "Foolish" to "Unfoolish" 12 pleasant tracks later. Who would have thought a government bigwig would actually know what he was talking about?

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