No excess

When Joni Mitchell announced her retirement from the music industry, she cited overwrought pop singers as one of many reasons for her disdain of the business.

There’s a nugget of truth in Mitchell’s criticism — restraint isn’t exactly a hallmark of R&B. If anything, it’s anathema to the expression of soul.

But sometimes, a whisper is louder than a scream, something Ashanti seems to have mastered.

The young R&B singer is already a hitmaker, but even elitist rock snobs (such as myself) can find something to like in Ashanti’s self-titled debut. Specifically: she’s got a great voice, and she doesn’t shove it in your face.

Like Sade but not nearly as lethargic, Ashanti knows the virtue of a slow burning, sensual love song. Even when she dealing with a neglectful lover (“Foolish”) or extolling the qualities of her proverbial knight (“Rescue”), Ashanti never emotes excessively.

Which doesn’t mean she couldn’t if she wanted to.

As such, the music feeds off of Ashanti’s tasteful performance. At times, it can get clichéd (the soft-porn feel of “Movies”); other times, it’s haunting (the ethereal “Voodoo”).

On tracks where Ashanti lets loose, the music never crowds in. “Happy” and “Leaving (Always on Time Part II)” are about as excited as the album gets.

After a while, Ashanti, the album, does become homogenous, and the skits between songs barely string the album together as a concept. When did it become a requirement for all R&B albums to impose a dramatic arc where there should be none?

But Ashanti, the singer, keeps things grounded, teasing instead of flaunting, seducing instead of macking.

And what better way to say “come hither” than with a quiet coo.